Pa. House Approves No-Tax-Hike Budget

Philadelphia Inquirer

The state House on Wednesday approved a $28.3 billion no-tax-hike budget, increasing education funding by $100 million and directing millions more to the disabled.

The 108-92 vote, after five hours of debate, kicks off three weeks of talks with the Senate and the Corbett administration to arrive at a final spending plan.

“This budget is a blueprint for good governance,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). “It does not increase taxes, and provides the highest level of education funding and provides for the most vulnerable.”

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), praised the House budget as fiscally responsible.

“We’ll continue working with the House and Gov. Corbett to reach an agreement on next year’s budget, and we remain confident we’ll complete that work by June 30,” Arneson said.

He said he expected the Senate to take up budget-related bills the week of June 24.

The budget increases spending by $500 million while delivering $300 million in tax breaks for businesses.

Democrats expressed outrage that the spending plan did not include a provision for Medicaid expansion to cover as many as 600,000 uninsured Pennsylvanians, and leaves cash-strapped Philadelphia schools $304 million in the hole with only $30 million in additional funding.

Rep. Dan Frankel of Allegheny County, who was joined by other House Democrats in the floor debate, said Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act was the “moral thing to do.”

As he spoke, a number of uninsured residents rallied outside the Capitol for coverage under the federal plan.

House GOP leaders said it would be premature to act on Medicaid expansion without a decision from Corbett. Corbett has said he and his top aides are working with Medicaid officials to determine whether there is sufficient flexibility to meet Pennsylvania’s needs.

Newly named Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth said after her confirmation hearing Wednesday that her agency was exploring Medicaid work requirements, cost sharing with enrollees, and subsidies for plans offered by private insurers.

Also under consideration is scaling back optional coverage provided by Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program, such as chiropractic care, podiatry, and funeral director’s services.

The House budget calls for 300 more state troopers than Corbett proposed and restores funding for certain health-related items, such as diabetes and epilepsy support programs and poison-control centers.

Democrats pressed to more than triple the increase for schools – for a total of $333 million over this year’s funding – and freeze Corbett’s proposed business-tax cuts.

Within seconds of the vote, Philadelphia lawmakers issued angry press releases condemning the GOP-led House as failing to address the needs of the Philadelphia School District, which is facing unprecedented reductions in programs and staffing as a result of its budget shortfall. Just last week, the district sent layoff notices to almost 3,800 employees.

“Once again,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.), “Gov. Corbett and the Republicans in the state legislature have forced their draconian cuts and slash-and-burn agenda on the people of Philadelphia.”

Rep. Steve McCarter (D., Montgomery) said school districts beyond Philadelphia were being forced to cut staff, end educational programs, charge fees to play sports, and raise property taxes.

“By continuing to underfund education,” he said, “the House Republicans are doing a disservice to Pennsylvania’s youth and their entire families.”

Several House Republicans blamed school districts for their predicaments, saying they mismanaged funds and raised taxes even when they received additional funding.