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Budget bill heads to governor, without funding

Written by Marc Levy/Associated Press | Jun 30, 2017 3:20 PM
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(Harrisburg) -- The main spending bill in a $32 billion bipartisan budget package is past the Pennsylvania Legislature on the state fiscal year's final day, although lawmakers don't know how it'll all be funded.

The House voted 173-27 on Friday, hours after the Senate voted 43-7. The package was unveiled a day earlier, after being negotiated in secret. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf supports it, but has yet to say whether he'll sign it if lawmakers can't figure out a spending plan.

Both chambers recessed until at least Wednesday, and lawmakers say they'll try next week to find $2 billion-plus to cover the shortfall.

The governor's office says spending is virtually flat under the package. Counting the amounts above the last approved budget of $31.5 billion, the increase is nearly 3 percent. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to universities is awaiting passage until lawmakers pass a revenue plan.

An earlier story appears below.

(Harrisburg) -- A $32 billion budget package that sends more money to Pennsylvania's schools and services for the intellectually disabled while making big savings bets shuffled closer to the governor's desk Friday, although some lawmakers predicted that the hardest part of paying for it has yet to come.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf supports the spending plan, but has yet to say how he would handle an unbalanced budget bill. The main appropriations bill passed the Senate, 43-7, on Friday, the last day of the fiscal year. A House vote was expected within hours.

Meanwhile, lawmakers prepared to return to the Capitol next week to hash out a plan to come up with more than $2 billion to cover a two-year projected shortfall.

"There's another big piece of this that needs to be finished, right?" Senator Judy Schwank, D-Berks, said during floor comments before voting for the budget bill. "This isn't the way we normally pay our bills at home, or spend. We make sure that we've got the money first before we do this, we all know that, but now the really hard work is coming."

The governor's office says spending is virtually flat under the package. Counting the amounts above the last approved budget of $31.5 billion, the increase is nearly 3 percent.

Public schools straining with rising pension costs get a small increase of $100 million, or 2 percent, while the state's pension obligations also drove spending higher.

Services for adults with intellectual disabilities or autism are getting a big boost, in part to whittle down an emergency waiting list for in-home care services and bump pay for the first time in at least five years for people who work with the intellectually disabled.

Many other services will see no increase, while the plan asks Wolf's administration to find savings across its agency administrative budgets and in the Medicaid program that, including federal dollars, costs $30 billion and gives medical care to nearly one-in-four Pennsylvanians.

It also anticipates savings from a shrinking prison population, reversing years of cost growth.

For the second straight year, the Republican-controlled Legislature set itself up to send an on-time, bipartisan spending package to Wolf, but with no settled plan on how to pay for huge parts of it.

Last year, Wolf let the plan become law without his signature when the 10-day signing period expired, and lawmakers delivered a $1.3 billion funding package three days later.

The state government's entrenched post-recession deficit is aggravated this year by its biggest cash shortfall since 2010, sending anti-tax Republican majority leaders in search of ways to borrow a substantial chunk of the missing money.

That brought some criticism from lawmakers.

"I think it's wonderful that we provide services to people, but let's be upfront, let's be honest, let's tell people how we're going to pay for those services," Senator Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, said during floor debate before voting against it. "Everyone wants something, but no one wants to pay for something, and when you have a borrow-and-spend budget, we as a Legislature are doing exactly that."

Senator Tom Killion, R-Delaware, called the borrowing plan "Duct tape and Band-Aids."

The spending figure in the just-unveiled budget package falls between what Democratic Governor Tom Wolf had sought in his February proposal and what the House passed in April, strictly with Republican support.

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