By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s budget deal includes $100 million for the creation of a new tax credit program that will fund scholarships for poor students in the state’s worst-performing school districts, according to Republicans who were briefed on the budget Thursday.
The new program will mirror the $75 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which provides scholarships to low- and middle-income students. That program also will be boosted to $100 million next year.
The new program to be called the Education Improvement Scholarship Credit is meant to replace the public school voucher proposal that failed to get enough support in the state House after passing the state Senate last year.
State Rep. Tony Payton, D-Philadelphia, who is firmly in the school choice camp, said a targeted scholarship program for poor families in failing schools was “extremely important” for students and parents “literally crying out for help.”
Other Democrats — who had not seen the specifics of the budget plan Thursday — were concerned about what other line items might have been reduced to fund the new program, since the overall spending figure remained the same from the budget bill passed by the state Senate last month that did not include the new scholarship proposal.
“I think we have to properly and fairly fund basis education before funding any new programs,” said state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Monroe.
State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said the new version of the budget did not include Corbett’s plan to change the way basic education is funded. The governor initially had proposed combining several line items into a new block grant to give school districts more flexibility even as funding was reduced.
This is an update from 7:20 p.m.
GOP lawmakers give thumbs up to state budget plan
HARRISBURG — Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers got their first look Thursday at the framework of the state budget plan that legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett agreed upon Wednesday night.
Initial reviews have been positive.
“I think the spend number is where we need to be to live within our means,” said state Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe.
Members also left a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon feeling good about increases that ensured flat-funding for basic and higher education this year after both took cuts last year.
Some, including Scavello, said they wanted to add more money to state-funded county programs for mental health, even if that meant taking a small amount from elsewhere.
Some line items were still being tweaked Thursday afternoon, so members had yet to receive line-by-line spreadsheets of the budget plan, but staff members were working to have those ready by the end of the day.
Lawmakers said the spending plan will carry forward about $430 million in revenue from the current budget year into 2012-13, but state Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, said that would not even be enough to cover the $500 million increase in pension costs coming next year.
“Basically all you’re doing is creating a fund to deal with that cost without passing it on to the taxpayers,” he said.
State Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Forest, said higher-than-expected June revenue was going to help ease some concerns about the leaders’ decision to add $500 million in spending on top of what Corbett proposed in February.
“There is a level of comfort about the sustainability of the number,” Gabler said of the $27.656 billion budget.
This is an update from 3:25 p.m.
House Democrats left ‘in the hinterlands’ during GOP-led budget discussions
HARRISBURG — While Republican lawmakers were negotiating next year’s budget behind closed doors in the governor’s office, the Democratic House of Representatives caucus was “out in the hinterlands,” said House Appropriations Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny.
The members of his party, he said, found out the final spending number was agreed to the same time as the media. So far, they have not been presented with any specific line items, either, he said.
Once that happens, legislative staff will analyze the numbers to inform members on how the funds will be distributed. But on the whole, Markosek said, he expects members to agree with him that this budget “will be harsh on Pennsylvania,” citing extra taxation from local governments and school districts, and parents forced to quit jobs to care for disabled children who’ve had care programs eliminated.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said the caucus will try to offer its own feedback, as the budget deadline, set for June 30, nears. But he said that while this budget restores half a billion in funding from what the governor proposed per the Senate’s proposal, in the long term, it represents more cuts.
“When you look at it over two years, there’s cuts even with the Senate budget, it’s bad for human services, it’s bad for people with disabilities, it’s bad for the most vulnerable, bad for education,” he said.
This is an update from 2:10 p.m.
Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln to avoid cuts in this year’s budget
The House Appropriations Committee moved five bills related to state-related university spending Thursday, edging through the first of the final legislative approvals of the budget.
The five bills relate to non-preferred spending for state-related universities, including: Penn State, Temple, Lincoln, University of Pittsburgh and University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School.
Funding was kept flat from 2011-2012 levels, and the committee used bills from that year with corresponding amendments to change the date. This didn’t sit well with all committee members, including state Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, who was concerned about the procedural precedent of amending a past budget-related bill.
“We’re taking budget bills that were proposed in last year’s budget and changing dates for this year’s budget,” Samuleson said. “I think it would be cleaner to have new bills for each budget year.”
Committee Republican Chairman state Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, said he asked legal counsel about those concerns, and they found no constitutional or parliamentarian problems.
The Democrat chairman for the House Appropriations Committee, Markosek, added that despite the funding being flat from the current year, the figures represent a 19 percent decrease for two consecutive years now.
All five bills passed with a majority vote, and will now move onto the House floor for a full vote. For technical reasons, the bills are separate from the actual state budget bill, but are generally regarded as part of the budget package.
This is an update from 12:30 p.m.