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Pennsylvania lawmakers plow ahead on budget, emergency aid

Marc Levy
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A piecemeal, no-new-taxes $25.8 billion spending package headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk on Thursday, as did legislation to distribute about $2.6 billion in emergency federal coronavirus aid to counties, nursing homes and wide range of other causes.

Both won speedy approval in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The budget package was first unveiled Tuesday, while the plan to distribute federal coronavirus aid was first unveiled Thursday morning. The main appropriations bill in the budget package was approved 44-6 in the Senate on Thursday, while the legislation to distribute emergency federal was unanimous.

Wolf, a Democrat, was expected to sign both.

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The $25.8 billion package carries full-year money for many public school budget lines, as well as for state-supported universities, debt service and school pension obligations. But it funds much of the rest of the state’s operating budget lines, including billions for social services, only through Nov. 30, the last day of the two-year legislative session.

Wolf and other budgetmakers say that will give them time to see how badly coronavirus-related shutdowns damage tax collections and whether the federal government sends another aid package to states. But it also sets up a budget fight in November to scrounge money for the rising cost of health care and human services that are putting considerable pressure on Pennsylvania’s state finances.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

Budget analysts are projecting a multi-billion shortfall through next July 1.

Budget makers also point to as much as $2 billion in tax collections, if not more, that will not arrive in state coffers until after the July 1 start of the fiscal year because of tax deadlines that were delayed amid the pandemic-related shutdowns.

Meanwhile, the legislation to distribute about $2.6 billion in emergency federal coronavirus aid will leave the state with about $1.3 billion for future needs.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, called the legislation “a thoughtful package that will get help out to millions of people in Pennsylvania.”

Almost $700 million will go to nursing homes and long-term living programs for the elderly, while $625 million will go to counties that did not already get direct aid from the federal government.

The grants to counties will be distributed by population, rather than by how hard-hit the county was by the coronavirus.

So, for instance, York County, home to 970 confirmed cases, will get nearly $41 million, while Berks County, home to about 4,000 confirmed cases, will get $38 million and Lehigh County, with more than 3,700 confirmed cases, will get about $33.4 million.

Meanwhile, Westmoreland County, with just 443 cases, would get $31.6 million, well over what Luzerne and Northampton counties will get, despite the fact that those two counties had at least six times the number of confirmed cases.

Philadelphia and the state’s six other most-populous counties received a total of $1 billion directly from the federal government.