Pa. budget framework supports major funding boost for public schools

 Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman says a tentative $30.26 billion budget pact calls for $2 billion in local property-tax relief. That would require hiking the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7.25 percent. (AP file photo)

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman says a tentative $30.26 billion budget pact calls for $2 billion in local property-tax relief. That would require hiking the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7.25 percent. (AP file photo)

Sources in the Pennsylvania Capitol say that the framework reached Monday for a state budget agreement includes a $400 million increase to K-12 public education this year.

While $350 million would be funneled into the basic education subsidy, an additional $50 million would go to special education. Pre-K programming would also see a boost, but sources differed on the amounts.

The state’s budget for higher education would increase by 5 percent.

“This is the first time that we feel like we’re moving ahead, and everyone is on the same track — as opposed to having a solid deal or anything final,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

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Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration would not comment on any specifics. Spokesman Jeff Sheridan confirmed, though, that negotiations have progressed.

“We believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

A source close to the Wolf administration said that a framework had been reached for the 2016-17 school year as well. Under that scenario, an additional $200 million would be added to basic education, and special education and pre-K would each get an additional $50 million.

Neither Kocher nor a spokesman for House Republicans could verify those proposals.

Budget negotiations have dragged on for months after the June 30 deadline. Wolf, a Democrat, has prioritized a drastic increase in state education aid as Republican leaders have balked at the package of tax increases that he proposed to fund it.

Gas drilling tax off the table

In a press conference with reporters after a two-hour caucus meeting Monday, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman sketched a few of the broad strokes in a tentative $30.26 billion budget pact. He said that $2 billion in local property-tax relief would be achieved by hiking the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7.25 percent — a regressive measure.

The source of funding for the education boost is less clear. Kocher indicated there is a possibility of increasing the tobacco tax, the bank shares tax, and using some gaming funds to reduce teacher pension obligations.

Kocher also stated that a tax on natural gas drilling was now off of the table, citing dwindling market rates.

The Wolf administration would not verify the status of these or any other funding proposals in the framework.

Both Sheridan and Kocher, though, said that the current budget conversation also includes reductions to pension benefits for future state employees — including teachers — and the restructuring of the state liquor store system.

“What the details are of those I can’t say at this time,” said Sheridan.

Kocher said that Senate Republicans would require some sort of long-term “taxpayer protection” as part of any deal that increases levies, but said the details weren’t finalized.

One proposal would demand that all property-tax increases go before a local voter referendum.

Anticipating that this could become a key bargaining chip in a final budget agreement, a coalition of education advocacy groups — disparate in ideology — rushed to forward stakeholders a letter Monday denouncing the idea as “reckless, poor policy.”

“Imposing mandatory referendum requirements on school districts would preclude them from raising property taxes even up to a limited inflationary index. It would also deny them the ability to seek exceptions from the commonwealth to secure resources to cover major cost drivers that are beyond their control — like special education programs, pension contributions, and grandfathered debt,” states the letter from The Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

CFEF is a coalition of more than 50 education-advocacy groups statewide pushing for a fairer formula for dividing state education aid.

“It is ill-advised for policymakers to deny public education a mechanism to support its mission while holding it accountable for outcomes,” the letter continued. “We cannot fix Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system without the ability to raise local revenue when necessary.” 

Wins and losses for all

At his budget address in March, Wolf called for an immediate $1 billion increase in education spending — pre-K through higher education. He pledged to pay for the historic boost with hikes to the personal income tax, the sales tax, and the cigarette tax. He also pledged to tax the production of natural gas while providing local property tax relief.

After an extended stalemate, Kocher said leaders were moving toward a deal that everyone can live with, if not like.

“There are wins in the budget for everyone,” she said. “And there are losses in the budget for everyone.”

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