Pa. lawmakers cosign $34 billion budget, but negotiations aren’t over

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. on the Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. on the Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania House Republicans have started moving the main spending bill for next year’s state budget, and it seems likely the Senate and Governor Tom Wolf will support it.

The plan passed the chamber’s appropriations committee with minimal debate Monday, setting the stage for what leaders hope will be a smooth final week of negotiations.

The budget is due before the fiscal year ends July 1.

The $33.99 billion general appropriations bill increases basic K-12 education spending by $160 million. Wolf had initially asked for $200 million.

Special education gets a $60 million bump, and higher education — including state colleges, community colleges, and state-related universities like Penn State and Temple University — is seeing two percent increases across the board. Career and technical education programs will also get a boost.

Educational Improvement Tax Credits — a private school scholarship program Republicans have prioritized — is getting a $25 million increase, though that pales in comparison with the $100 million boost and automatic escalator some Republicans had sought.

Among other things, there is also new spending to assist farmers, and at least $250 million for the commonwealth’s long-barren rainy day fund.

Democratic Appropriations Chair Matt Bradford said that while he has his gripes, “the simple reality is, there is much good news in this budget.”

But not everyone is happy — especially other members of the Democratic minority.

Nine Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee voted against the plan.

Philadelphia freshman Elizabeth Fiedler bemoaned the unchanged minimum wage, which at $7.25 an hour is lower than the minimum in any neighboring state. She also decried Republicans’ decision to ax a program that provides cash assistance for certain poor people.

“Our budgetary decisions are going to hurt people who live in our districts,” she told her GOP colleagues and fellow Democrats.

In a statement, a spokesman for Wolf said that the budget the governor originally outlined in February aimed to “make investments in all levels of education, build on our progress to have the nation’s strongest workforce and help children and their families at early periods of development, while making large deposits in the Rainy Day Fund and structurally balancing after years of deficits.”

“The appropriations bill now before the legislature,” he wrote, “meets these objectives.”

Other components of the overall budget  — including a spending plan, funding for human services, and potential money for voting machine improvements — are still being debated.

Wolf has asked for $75 million over five years to upgrade the commonwealth’s voting machines. Some Republicans have argued that level of investment is unnecessary.

House GOP Majority Leader Bryan Cutler confirmed talks with the governor on that subject are still happening.

“Our hope,” he said, “is to advance both reforms as well as potential funding.”

Counting the money that will be used to patch funding holes left over from this fiscal year, lawmakers’ working proposal increases overall spending by about 3.8%.

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