Pa. budget would leave billions unspent, boost education funding

Pennsylvania lawmakers are starting to wrap up the state budget a week after the annual spending plan was due to be completed when the state's fiscal year ended.

Pennsylvania State Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania lawmakers, nearly a week into the state’s new fiscal year, began passing budget legislation Thursday to add billions into surplus accounts, significantly boost education spending and fund new environmental programs.

The Republican-majority House passed the main budget bill with little debate on a 180-20 vote, hours after representatives were briefed on the details. All of the no votes were Republicans.

Leaders of the GOP caucus touted the $42.8 billion spending plan for how it would affect transportation, police and election operations.

“One, it responsibly saves money, two, it responsibly invests money, and three, while making sure that we’re taking care of today we’re also planning for tomorrow,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told reporters.

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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesperson called it a bipartisan deal that increases spending on education and other of his priorities.

“The governor urges the Legislature to continue to move to get a budget to his desk,” Wolf press secretary Beth Rementer said after the House vote.

The Senate also moved budget bills on Thursday and both chambers were likely to wrap up budget lawmaking on Friday.

House Republicans said the plan would repay some $2 billion in borrowed money and increase the rainy day fund from $2.9 billion to $5 billion. It also would leave about $3.6 billion unspent for future needs.

Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, the Appropriations chair, called the deal “exactly the medicine this commonwealth needs to right ourselves and be the most competitive state in this nation and return ourselves to the Keystone State we should be.”

K-12 education spending would go up by more than a half-billion dollars, and the state’s 100 poorest districts would split an additional $225 million. The plan would also increase subsidies for early childhood education, special education and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

A program that gives tax credits in return for private school tuition would see an increase of 45%, to more than $400 million.

Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said that the program was undermining public education and that this year’s funding represented “the single largest effort to privatize public education that the General Assembly has ever made.”

Wolf has agreed to pull charter school regulations that had been approved in March.

On the environment, the framework would spend some $220 million in federal funds to help clean streams, about $150 million to fix up parks and forest land, and more for sewer and water infrastructure, flood control and storm water projects.

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A $45 million expenditure for elections through a state agency would help counties with the costs of voter registration, preparing and administering elections and auditing the results. Private donations to pay for elections would be prohibited.

The legislation was in response to Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of hundreds of millions of dollars to help fund local elections strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of it was distributed through a nonpartisan organization, the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

In Pennsylvania, more than 20 counties, Philadelphia and the Department of State received funding, totaling nearly $25 million, according to the center’s tax documents. Across the country, the money paid for mail and absentee ballot equipment, temporary staffing and personal protective equipment.

A child care tax credit would be created, along with more money for a property tax and rent rebate program for seniors and to help lower-income people afford the cost of heating their homes.

The corporate net income tax rate, currently 10%, would drop by 1 percentage point this year and then be on track for half-point cuts in future years until it would hit 5%.

“This is what bipartisan compromise looks like on an issue that has confounded this chamber for literally decades,” said the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County.

The budget would pay for 200 new state troopers and shuffle funding for state police out of a fund that can therefore afford more transportation projects.

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