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Corbett signs Pa. budget ahead of deadline

HARRISBURG --Â Twelve minutes before the midnight deadline, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $27.15 billion state budget, breaking an eight-year string of late budgets and fulfilling a pledge to close a $4.2 billion deficit without raising taxes.

Corbett also signed legislation that he insisted was critical to the budget deal: a provision -- that was nearly a deal breaker -- giving voters more control over school property tax increases.

Signing the budget by the deadline set in state law was "a very important first step in putting our fiscal house in order," Corbett told jubilant Republican House and Senate members gathered on the Capitol Rotunda steps.

"This reality-based budget marks a return to the constitutional principles that must guide Pennsylvania's fiscal policy," Corbett said.

"It spends no more than we have, and it doesn't pretend we have more than what we have budgeted," the governor said.

The voter referendum law "puts taxing and funding decisions where they belong -- in the hands of the voters who are footing the bill," Corbett said. "Who knows better how to spend money in our communities than the citizens who live there?

Democrats have criticized the budget as a plan that will mean higher property taxes because of sizeable reductions to school districts -- largely a result of the loss of federal stimulus money.

Earlier in the evening, the Legislature approved a bill giving the Corbett administration wider latitude to reduce costs at the Department of Public Welfare to meet projected savings in the state budget.

Welfare advocates said the change allows the Welfare Department to make unilateral changes without legislative input or public comment. But a department spokesman said the state's fiscal condition requires the ability to "swiftly curb spending."

"The conventional processes simply would be too cumbersome and time-consuming," said Mike Race, the agency's press secretary. "This truly is a case where time is money." Changes will be made in "open fashion" with input from "lawmakers and stakeholders," Race said.

House Appropriations Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, said the legislation gives Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander "unfettered power" to cut $250 million in spending, including changing eligibility and co-pays. He called it "unprecedented authority" for the department.

"It is not an unprecedented action as some may falsely claim," Race said, noting former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's department was granted similar authority in 2005 on Medicaid.

The welfare bill was approved 35-15 in the Senate.

Corbett signed into law one of his reform priorities: a centralized website to enable taxpayers to track how their billions are being spent. The bill by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, will list payments to contractors and employees' compensation on a searchable website starting in 2012.

Christiana says it "will change behavior and common practices" at the Capitol. "When there's greater scrutiny, people will make sure they spend taxpayers' dollars as wisely as possible."

It's the first time in nine years the state budget has been completed before the start of July.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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