Pennsylvania budget plan includes more for schools, safety
HARRISBURG — 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 no-new-taxes spending package could see floor votes in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House and Senate by week’s end.
The new fiscal year begins July 1, and the state’s relatively stable finances were expected to pave a smoother budget process after three years dominated by protracted partisan stalemates over how to plug stubborn deficits.
The plan increases authorized spending by about $700 million, or slightly over 2 percent above the current year’s enacted budget of $32 billion.
All told, the spending increase would go 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 spurred by February’s high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
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. Lawmakers also say they are counting on $100 million from licenses to conduct the newly legalized 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.”
Rejected: Republicans, however, 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 amid a flurry of amendments from opponents. 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.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, 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 such as metal detectors, school resource officers and 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, but we do anticipate that being part of the movement over the next week or so,” Reed said.
Pennsylvania state government entered the final weeks of its fiscal year with stable tax collections, aided by December’s federal tax overhaul law, a year after budget makers filled a $2.2 billion deficit, largely by borrowing.
The state faces rising borrowing costs in the coming years after borrowing to fund school construction projects and to backfill last year’s deficit.