Pennsylvania close to a budget deal

The plan calls for spending $32.7 billion — roughly $700 million more than last year.

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (WITF)

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (WITF)

On Tuesday, after considerable behind-the-scenes discussion, Pennsylvania state House lawmakers moved a compromise spending bill out of committee.

Senate leaders and Gov. Tom Wolf said they support it. And, if that support holds, this could be the first year in Wolf’s tenure a plan passes by the June 30 deadline.

The House proposal doesn’t include any new funding. But based on next year’s revenue projections, lawmakers are banking on having more money to work with than they did this year.

The plan calls for spending $32.7 billion — roughly $700 million more than last year.

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The entire, brief process has been a far cry from last year’s budget negotiations, which involved an unexpected revenue shortfall and stretched into a four-month impasse.

Senate Republican Leader Jake Corman said lawmakers didn’t change their approach this time around — they just have more to work with.

“There wasn’t necessarily a desire to have a fight last year, it was the fact that the problem was so big. When you’re looking at a $2.2 billion hole, there’s no easy way to fix that,” he said. “This year, obviously, with the performance of the economy, we didn’t have that problem.”

The plan would route $100 million toward basic public education funding; $20 million would go to preschools, and $15 and $5 million would go to special education and the commonwealth’s Head Start program, respectively.

The state higher education system, community colleges, and state-related schools — including Penn State and Temple University — would get a roughly 3 percent boost.

Meanwhile, $60 million would also go toward increased school safety — a renewed priority following two high-profile school shootings in Florida and Texas this year.

“We’re still finalizing the language,” House GOP Leader Dave Reed said. It would be “something similar to the accountability block grant, where school districts will get a menu of options to be able to choose what best fits their needs and their district for school safety.”

An existing line in the budget already allocates some money toward school safety. The current proposal would boost that item slightly, to $10 million for both parochial and public schools. That would be on top of the new, off-budget $60 million, which would go solely to public schools.

Reed added, the proposal also puts about $20 million into the commonwealth’s “Rainy Day Fund.”

“This is the first time in, I would say, over a decade that we’ve been making a depositing money in the Rainy Day Fund,” he said. “We’re hopeful, and I know the governor’s hopeful as well, that this becomes a trend.”

A significant chunk of revenue — about $200 million — is also going toward a planned increase in the contribution to the State Employees Retirement System.

In a statement of support, Wolf said the House’s budget “continues the progress we’ve made to restore fiscal stability to the commonwealth’s finances.”

If that positivity continues, this could be the first budget Wolf signs as governor. Due to disagreements, he allowed the previous three to become law without his signature.

Wolf is up for re-election this year.

Legislative leaders predicted their proposal will pass the House on Wednesday, and the Senate will act that afternoon. The bill could head to Wolf’s desk as soon as Friday.

If the General Assembly does, in fact, pass the majority of the budget this week and finish related bills soon after, that leaves an uncertain future for any other bills with summer deadlines —namely, a major change to the commonwealth’s redistricting process.

Typically, once a budget is passed the chambers recess until fall.

But that bill — a constitutional amendment — must pass by July 6 to stay on track to take effect before Pennsylvania redraws its electoral maps in 2021.

Asked if the measure is off the table, Corman — whose chamber moved the bill last week — put most of the onus on the House.

“I was told [the bill] may be coming out of committee soon, but we haven’t had any conversation with the House,” he said. “We’re prepared to react quickly … if we need to come back to finish up anything that they may have changed so it can get done, we’re prepared to do that.”

He added, “That will probably be the one initiative that will keep us here if we can get it done.”

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