The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

June 30, 2014

Legislature adopts $29.1B budget

HARRISBURG — The Legislature voted late Monday to put a looming, $1.5 billion shortfall in its rearview mirror with a deal to pass a $29.1 billion budget that increases state spending by 1.8 percent but doesn’t hike taxes.

Gov. Tom Corbett issued a statement after the House vote saying he does not intend to immediately sign the bill, while he still pushes for a pension reform vote.

“The budget I received tonight makes significant investments in our common priorities of education, jobs and human services. It does not address all the difficult choices that still need to be made,” Corbett said in a statement.

“I will continue to work with the Legislature toward meaningful pension reform. I am withholding signing the budget passed by the General Assembly while I deliberate its impact on the people of Pennsylvania,” Corbett said in the statement.

The governor’s resistance came after a fiercely debated bill passed both chambers without any Democratic support.

Division remains over how that

$1.5 billion gap is reconciled. Republicans say the spending plan shows how government can live within its means, while Democrats say it leans heavily on gimmicks and short-changes the state’s schools.

Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, dismissed the package as a “smoke and mirrors budget crafted out paper clips.”

He said the budget’s overly optimistic assumptions suggest the state faces a dire financial crisis by the end of the year.

Republicans, who control both houses of the General Assembly, defended the plan as the best option available.

“Considering how bad our economic circumstances are, it’s a pretty good budget,” said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford.

The Senate voted Monday afternoon to pass the spending plan, followed by a House vote later in the evening, just as the final minutes of the fiscal year were ticking away.

The budget closes a gap that was created as 2013-14 tax revenue repeatedly missed projections. At one time the shortfall was estimated to be as much as $1.5 billion.

The budget includes one-time shifts of $100 million from each of two business loan funds to the school employees’ pension fund.

It also transfers $225 million from two investment reserves into the pension fund.

Republicans also boosted how much the state expects to receive in tax collections in the coming year. The budget increases revenue by $224 million.

The budget also indicates the government will collect $95 million more  for allowing gas companies to expand their activities in state forests – which is

$20 million more than Corbett said he expected when he unveiled the idea in February.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, called the timing of the budget maneuvers suspicious considering that Corbett, all of the state House and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election.

Wozniak said this isn’t a “live within your means” budget but a “spend-and-pretend” one.

The budget has two charms, Wozniak said. One, it means incumbents don’t have to vote for a tax increase before the fall election. And, with polls showing Corbett lagging his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf, the spending plan could be designed to saddle a new governor with a crisis when he comes into office.

“That’s my opinion,” said Wozniak.

Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johns-town, said that there was time to get the budget done well, but too much of the deliberation was concentrated with Republican leaders instead of considering ideas from other lawmakers.

“Instead of making hard decisions, they decided not to fix the real problems,” Barbin said.

Tackling the real problems would have included going after charter school funding and accepting federal Medicaid dollars, he said.

As Democrats lambasted Republicans for shifting money from loan funds, Republicans defended the strategy as the same one employed by any homeowner or merchant trying to balance a checkbook.

“If you’re running a small business and you have funds not being used, before you go to your customers, or the taxpayers, you would spend the money you have on hand,” said Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer.

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