By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Seated at a table in the center of the Capitol rotunda last Saturday night, Gov. Tom Corbett signed the 2012-2013 fiscal year budget about 15 minutes before the clock struck midnight.
It’s a budget, he said, that will bring a change in the culture of state government, from “tax and spend” to “build and save.”
And he touted the budget’s potential for private-sector job creation, tied to a new tax credit aimed at a proposed natural gas processing facility in Beaver County called an ethane cracker.
“We are making progress in our state, I believe,” Corbett said. “As we go forward, let’s keep a few things in mind. We need to continue to follow a course of reform, restraint and responsibility.”
At $27.656 billion, the total spending package is more than $370 million than the year that ended at midnight.
And it’s around half a billion more than what Corbett proposed in the first budget draft in February, which was attributed to higher-than-expected revenue collections throughout the spring.
At nearly $11 billion, funding for basic and higher education takes up around 40 percent of the budget.
Corbett called education “our number one spending priority.”
Education also was a main source of debate throughout the budget process.
Scores of teachers and parents took to the Capitol to protest cuts during the past several weeks. Democrat lawmakers called out Corbett for an average funding cut of $463 per student since he took office, and for 15,000 job losses in public schools.
In the end, funding for basic education in public schools settled at $5.4 billion, or $139 million above what Corbett proposed.
Those additions include: a $100 million Accountability Block Grant distributed among districts that supports early childhood education, and a $39 million addition targeted at distressed schools, most of which will go to four districts.
Other education reforms weaved their way through the budget process, but not all shook out as the administration may have hoped. A push to reform charter school fiscal and academic accountability measures, an administration goal, never made it through both chambers.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, D-Allegheny, said he was “quite convinced” the Legislature would address charter school reforms in the fall.
Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said while it was unfortunate that there was no action on the issue at this time, there’s still “very important reforms” for charter schools that will be addressed.
Funding for state and state-related universities is flat for next year, after restorations were made in the Senate’s updated proposal. That restoration is contingent upon an agreement with higher education leaders to keep tuition increases under the Consumer Price Index.
“I think this marks an important turning point in our efforts to make higher education affordable to our families,” Corbett said.
In the Department of Public Welfare, the budget eliminates a $205-per-month general assistance program that reached 70,000 residents. The program cut around $150 million off the budget’s bottom line, a move that drew ire of House and Senate Democrats who argued in favor of keeping the program.
The program will end after a 30-day extension, a provision added to the budget in the final week of negotiations.
Overall, public welfare spending is funded at $10.58 billion, making in the second-largest portion of the budget after education.
Language in an updated public welfare code includes a pilot program for human services block grants. The provision allows up to 20 counties to allocate human services funding in a variety of categories that traditionally are restricted to certain line items.
“People living in the local community know their needs better than we do here in Harrisburg,” Corbett said. “That’s why we’re giving them more control to better address their needs.”
Funding for the Department of Corrections is held flat from 2011-2012, at $1.867 billion. But that’s following years of steady increases.
In 2010, state funding for the department was at $1.69 billion, but the department also received a $172 million boost of federal stimulus money for a total of $1.867 billion. That figure dropped by around $208,000 for the 2011-2012 year, but held flat.
Not all the plans were well-received by Democrats, who were not privy to the closed-door negotiations throughout June.
However, the spending plan and code updates did receive varying degrees of bipartisan support. Corbett even said he thought it was “very interesting” to see Democrats supporting certain aspects of the budget.
Still, many Democrats took to the floor to debate certain measures even as the governor was preparing to sign the budget.
House Appropriations Committee Democratic Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, said changes to the budget had to be voted on without any public vetting. He said the budget shortchanges Pennsylvanians, and said it does not adequately address transportation issues spread throughout the state.
“My advice to Pennsylvanians counting on this budget, don’t get old, don’t get sick, don’t try to educate kids, don’t be unlucky enough to be disabled, don’t try to find a job, don’t try to catch a bus, and don’t try to cross a bridge,” Markosek said.