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PA Budget Live Blog: Senate committee moves on Medicaid expansion

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By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers took the first step towards expanding Medicaid on Friday evening, with 9-2 vote from the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

The legislation includes a number of parameters and conditions that would have to be part of any Medicaid expansion, which was designed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

VANCE: Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, said the conditions on a Medicaid expansions would help contain costs.

VANCE: Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, said the conditions on a Medicaid expansions would help contain costs.

Public Health and Welfare Chairwoman Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, said the conditions are designed to help Pennsylvania control its Medicaid costs. Without an expansion, the state’s share of Medicaid funding is set to rise by about $600 million, she said.

Vance said these conditions – like continuing the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, and an ability to stop participating if the federal government fails to fulfill its funding promises.

“We are trying to set up the parameters on what we as a commonwealth want,” Vance said to reporters following the vote, which occurred around 8:30 p.m. “It’s fine to say, ‘Oh well we want to expand Medicaid.’ But we don’t want to expand it unless we can get these things in there.”

Two senators voted no: Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango.

The conditions were reached after a series of negotiations with Senate Democrats, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.

“We think they are very reasonable, doable conditions that allow us to participate in the Medicaid expansion,” Costa said.

Costa said he’s confident the bill will pass the full Senate. That vote could happen sometime Saturday. But there’s “more work to do” to get the bill passed, as Gov. Tom Corbett and many House Republicans have long said costs associated with the Medicaid expansion would overburden the state budget.

The expansion language was included in an amendment to House Bill 1075, a bill amending the Public Welfare Code.

The amended bill would also the name of the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Human Services, among other changes to department programs. And it would allow 10 more counties to receive their human services funding in the form of a block grant, expanding a 20-county program established last year.

This is an update from 9:00 p.m.

Sen. Don White is the least enthusiastic “yes” vote in the history of ever – but the Senate is still working on liquor deal

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, says he has changed from a “no” to a “yes” on a liquor privatization bill being debated behind-closed-doors by Senate Republicans on Friday evening.

THE RELUCTANT SENATOR: Don White says he'll vote for liquor to avoid jeopardizing transportation funding.

THE RELUCTANT SENATOR: Don White says he’ll vote for liquor to avoid jeopardizing transportation funding.

But he doesn’t sound really thrilled about it.  And that’s not an understatement.

“It’s still in my opinion a bad bill,” said White as he was leaving the GOP caucus room. “I want privatization, but in my opinion this is not the way we should go about it.”

So why is White voting “yes?”  He said he was concerned that there is a unspoken connection between the liquor bill before the state Senate (a priority of House GOP leaders) and the transportation funding bill before the state House (a priority of, don’t ya know, the GOP leaders in the state Senate).

White said he didn’t know if a such a quid pro quo was in the works, but said he was “not going to take that chance” because he views increased transportation funding for his district as the most important thing.  He said he would prefer a liquor bill that moved more quickly to divest the state of its monopoly on liquor sales.

White and other Senate Republicans said they were close to the necessary 26 votes to pass the liquor bill.  With all 23 Senate Democrats united against the measure, the Republican caucus can afford no more than one “no” vote among their 27 members.

But, “we’re still not sure what the Senate is going to vote on,” said Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, as he headed for the Senate floor after the five-hour closed-door meeting.

The Senate could vote on an amendment to one of two identical liquor bills (HB 790 and SB 100) sometime Friday night or Saturday.  The state House is gone for the night and will return – to maybe pick up the transportation bill – on Saturday morning.

This is an update from 8:25 p.m.

Top senators say budget agreement still in the works

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Whether Pennsylvania gets an on-time budget depends on whether lawmakers can deliver an agreement to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk by June 30 at midnight. But a little more than 48 hours away from a deadline, two top state Senators said negotiations were still ongoing.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said early Friday evening lawmakers and the administration were still haggling over the final spending plan.

Though Corman wouldn’t say what issues are holding up an agreement, he said it was a matter of priorities.

“We’re still deciding on how much to spend this year and what revenues we need to pay for that,” Corman said.

He said that other legislative priorities taking up negotiations, like transportation funding and liquor privatization, aren’t issues with a deadline.

“Our responsibility is to do a budget by June 30 by midnight,” Corman said. “We’re zeroing in, we’re getting closer, but we’d like to finish.”

He said he hoped for an agreement late Friday evening. But more likely, it would be Saturday morning.

Senate Appropriations Minority Chairman Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, was headed into a meeting inside the governor’s office when he said he an agreement would likely be delivered Saturday morning.

Hughes said Senate Democrats are still advocating for increased funding for public education. He agreed with Corman that final negotiations are coming down to priorities.

“The state would be in a much better situation if the governor would follow our lead in terms of policy priorities,” Hughes said.

This is an update from 7:45 p.m.

Cigarettes for school children

By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – As the state budget is being debated this weekend, one of the remaining questions is whether lawmakers will find some extra cash for financially-strapped school districts.

CIGARETTES FOR SCHOOLS: Philadelphia schools could get a funding boost from smokers.

CIGARETTES FOR SCHOOLS: Philadelphia schools could get a funding boost from smokers.

State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, has one idea: make smokers pay more to help pay for Philadelphia’s struggling schools.

Williams recently introduced Senate Bill 993, which would allow Philadelphia to impose a tax of 10 cents on each cigarette sold in the city. The tax would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes by $2 and the price of a carton by $20. The money raised by the tax would then be distributed to the Philadelphia School District.

William’s bill does not contain any oversight on how the Philadelphia School District could use the funding. The bill would raise $46 million for the school district, a mere drop in the bucket considering their current $304 million dollar budget deficit. 

The bill moved out of the state Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

According to the American Lung Association, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes in Pennsylvania is $5.74. The new tax would raise that price to $7.74, a price still below the cost of a pack in New York City but well above the national average price of $5.51.

Inside the state, reaction to William’s bill has been mixed at best.

Wawa, a chain of convenience stores based in the Philadelphia area, has begun distributing literature arguing the cigarette tax will serve only to create a black market for cigarettes in Philadelphia.

Cigarette smuggling has become a problem in cities with high cigarette prices.  One cigarette smuggling group in New York was even accused of having ties to terrorist organizations, and the New York City Police Department believes cigarette smuggling rings fund groups as nefarious as Hamas and Hezbollah.

American for Prosperity – Pennsylvania, a free-market think-tank, issued a press release urging state lawmakers to oppose the measure.

“It is not fiscally prudent to raise taxes, any taxes, in order to fund any entity that is consistently unable to manage its finances,” said AFP-PA State Director Jennifer Stefano in the release.

Gary Joseph Wilson can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @gjw34. 

This is an update from 4:50 p.m.

House rank-and-file promises to tank budget bill if welfare code includes Medicaid expansion

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – A group of 33 rank-and-file House Republicans have signed a letter pledging to vote against the state budget if the House leadership tries to pass a welfare code bill that would expand Medicaid eligibility.

That’s a lot of jargon, but here’s what it means: assuming there is little to no Democratic support for the state budget, those 30 Republican “no” votes would be more than enough to keep the bill from making it to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.

We believe that we have a duty to stand with the taxpayers of Pennsylvania during the budget process and reject any inclusion or any element of this expansion that is part of the budget,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to their fellow House members. “We are prepared to vote no on the General Appropriation bill if any component of the budget expands Medicaid.

Why are they promising to vote “no” on the budget, if the thing they really oppose – Medicaid expansion – is in the welfare code, a piece of legislation is that separate from the budget but usually moves through the process simultaneously?

Because their “no” votes on the welfare code would not be enough to sink it.  Democrats will readily join with the more moderate Republicans in the House to approve the welfare code bill and the Medicaid expansion.  But there were no Democratic votes for the budget bill itself when it was in front of the House earlier this month, and that likely won’t change when it returns from the state Senate later this weekend.

If these conservative GOPers told true to their promise, it leaves House leadership in a bind.  Either block the Medicaid expansion in the welfare code to win support from the 33 break-away conservatives in the GOP caucus, or go searching for Democratic votes to pass the budget even with some Republicans voting “no.”

The conservative rebellion was applauded by Americans for Prosperity Pennsylvania, a conservative grassroots group that has been pushing for years against Medicaid expansion and other aspects of the federal Affordable Care Act.

The state Senate is preparing a bipartisan amendment to the welfare code that would expand Medicaid coverage in Pennsylvania, provided the federal government meets certain conditions.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Thursday the chamber was “fairly close” to reaching an agreement on the issue.

This is an update from 1:53 p.m.

Movement on budget bill expected soon, while pension changes stall

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – With three more days of negotiations to go until the constitutional budget deadline, Friday afternoon could bring progress on the 2013-2014 spending plan.

Budget Secretary Charles Zogby

Budget Secretary Charles Zogby

Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said discussions are continuing on the budget bill. That includes spending items and revenue options, like a capital stock and franchise tax elimination freeze or a Delaware loophole closure bill.

Earlier this week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre said he felt the budget bill negotiations were getting crowded out by discussions on transportation funding, liquor privatization and pension reform.

Zogby said he disagreed.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time and focus on it, so I don’t think it’s getting pushed said,” Zogby said. “I think it’s getting plenty of attention.”

Corman said he hoped to get the budget bill moved out of his committee by Saturday.

That budget may get more attention as one of Gov. Tom Corbett’s major policy initiatives –pension reform – may be  off the table. Lawmakers in the House proposed bills that would put new employees into a 401(k) style system, but it’s not clear if that proposal will pass this year.

Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said earlier this week while there is plenty of interest in putting future employees into a defined contribution system, there may not be enough time this weekend to figure out how to make it work financially.

“I would argue that it’s a significant step forward and if it doesn’t get resolved in the next four days, it’s not like it’s dead,” Smith said. “It’s something we can work through further in the fall.”

Zogby said he did not disagree with Smith’s comments.

This is an update from 1:35 p.m.