HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A state budget that supporters defended as a product of hard choices in bad economic times but critics warned would devastate education and human services was sent to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday without a single Democratic vote.
The 109-92 vote forwarded the budget to the governor in time for him and Republican leaders to fulfill their goal of having the first on-time budget in nine years. The new fiscal year starts at midnight Thursday, and it was unclear when Corbett might sign it.
During a lively floor debate, even basic facts were disputed by members of the two parties, including the total spending figure, whether it contains new taxes and the size of the revenue surplus.
Republicans called it a $27.2 billion plan with no increased taxes, while Democrats put the total at $27.7 billion and called a higher hospital “assessment” a tax increase.
Two Philadelphia Republicans voted with the Democrats. The budget passed the Senate a day earlier on a strict party-line vote.
Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the budget eliminated wasteful spending, did not add to the state’s debt load and contained none of the legislatively directed grants known as “walking around money.”
“This is a historic budget in that it is fiscally responsible, prioritized and on time,” Turzai said.
Many more Democrats than Republicans spoke during several hours of floor debate, and many predicted deep cuts in education spending will translate into higher local property taxes, fewer teachers, larger class sizes and higher college tuition rates.
“Our voices have been stifled, our constituents have been disenfranchised and debate has not been allowed to take place,” said Rep. Dan Frankel of Allegheny County, the Democratic caucus chairman. “This is a prime example of what a budget looks like when Republicans are the deciders.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, told members the bill restored $30 million for public schools and $300 million for higher education above what the House had previously approved, as well as more funding for such programs as breast cancer and domestic violence and for critical care hospitals.
Other Republicans praised the budget for a spending reduction of about 3 percent from the current year.
“We’d like to be happy-go-lucky, handing out money here and there and yonder,” said Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks. “This budget surgically goes line by line by line to try to ensure that services can be delivered at more efficient dollars.”
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said he would be voting for the budget for the first time in 13 years.
“It is in line with what so many taxpayers have expressed that they would like to see state government do, and that is protect them from excessive spending,” he said.
Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne, said schools have already begun laying off employees in response to the budget bill.
Republicans “own these cuts,” Mundy said. “We could do much better than this. We should do much better than this for our families, our vulnerable citizens.”
The budget spends about $200 million of the current year’s surplus, revenues that have outpaced projections by some $700 million, Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said.
Democrats said they were getting conflicting answers about the surplus and argued the money should be used to decrease reductions in education and human services.
“This budget says, ‘Hooray for me and the heck with you,'” said Rep. Bud George, D-Clearfield. “It says, ‘The rich get richer and the poor get babies.’ Today our economy is called the Great Recession, but I call this pending plan the great recession of compassion, of common sense and of kindness.”
Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, failed in his efforts to increase funding for the Department of Environmental Protection, saying “draconian cuts put the health and safety of Pennsylvanians at risk.”
Also Wednesday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would give the Corbett administration more power to change policies in a range of human services and welfare programs.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said the 23-page amendment would allow more flexibility as the administration works to reduce costs and increase efficiency, in an effort to achieve spending cuts in the budget bill.
Democrats and advocates for the poor warned that the amendment, which they’d barely seen before Republicans brought it up for a vote, would allow the imposition of new regulations without public input. They said the state could then increase co-pays, eliminate eligibility, curtail services and deny public assistance to a person convicted of a felony drug offense who refuses to take a drug test.
There is traditionally a crush of lawmaking in the days before the General Assembly takes a break from Harrisburg for the summer.
But midway through the final week of the fiscal year, the Legislature has not given final approval to bills that would impose new regulations for abortion clinics, limit school property tax increases or prevent the city of Harrisburg from seeking bankruptcy protection.
The House on Wednesday also sent Corbett a bill establishing PennWATCH, a public website that will provide detailed information on state finances.
Imposition of a fee or tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction was apparently put off until fall, at least, after Corbett said Tuesday he would veto anything that passes before his hand-picked commission reports back to him next month with recommendations.
“We face the potential for environmental catastrophe, and yet we are passing a budget this week, and once again we are passing by an opportunity to do the right thing and tax this industry,” said Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks. “Something the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians support.”
School vouchers, a priority of Corbett’s, were declared dead for the time being, as lawmakers will soon depart Harrisburg for their customary two-month summer break.
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