Details of a $32.7 billion state budget package are emerging as top Republican lawmakers reveal details of an election-year plan they negotiated behind closed doors with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Details of a $32.7 billion state budget package began emerging Tuesday, as top Republican lawmakers prepared an election-year plan they negotiated behind closed doors with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
The spending package makes a substantially larger commitment to improve school safety after February’s high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and could see floor votes in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House and Senate by week’s end.
The state’s relatively stable tax collections — aided by December’s federal tax overhaul law — were helping to pave a smoother budget process after three years dominated by protracted partisan stalemates over how to plug stubborn deficits.
The new fiscal year begins July 1.
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The plan holds the line on state taxes on income and sales, and increases authorized spending by about $700 million through the state’s main bank account, or slightly over 2 percent above the current year’s enacted budget of $32 billion.
The spending increase goes primarily to public schools, prisons, social services, pensions, universities and early-childhood education programs, plus $60 million for an off-budget grant program for school safety.
Despite stable tax collections, House officials say they will rely on about $800 million in one-time cash sources — including money from a forthcoming settlement to litigation with tobacco companies — to cover Medicaid costs off-budget. Budget makers are also counting on more than $100 million from licenses to conduct the newly legalized online gambling and sports betting that they hope the state’s casino owners will buy at $10 million a pop.
Wolf, who is seeking a second term in November’s election, appeared to get most of what he had requested in his February proposal, including more money to expand high-demand computer and industrial skills training in high schools and colleges.
In a statement, Wolf called it a “responsible and bipartisan” plan.
“We have worked cooperatively over the past few months to find common ground and room for compromise,” Wolf said. “This budget makes smart investments in education, safety and human services and continues the progress we’ve made to restore fiscal stability to the commonwealth’s finances.”
Republicans still rejected Wolf’s overtures for a fourth straight year for a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, after the legislation stalled in the House late last year. Republicans also rejected Wolf’s request for municipalities to start paying a $25 per-person fee for the free state police coverage they receive, a total of $63 million a year.
One big winner is the Erie School District, which is in line for an extra $15 million in public school funding for a second straight year.
While public school officials have said rising state aid isn’t enough to cover their increasing costs, John Callahan of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said Tuesday that the budget package is a positive step for districts. The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, however, said hospitals cannot sustain a $75 million increase in assessments demanded in the budget package without possibly hurting access to primary care and specialty services.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said officials were still deciding how school safety dollars would be distributed to schools and what districts could use it for. Those options could include things like metal detectors, school resource officers or improving entranceway security, Reed said. The legislation is expected to be in the hundreds of pages of budget-related legislation being prepared for passage in the coming days.
“We want to give schools the flexibility on the best way to spend those dollars,” Reed said.
Last year, Wolf and lawmakers filled a $2.2 billion deficit, largely by borrowing, and the state faces rising borrowing costs in the coming years to repay that and new bonds it issued for school construction projects.