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Corbett mum on negotiations over Pennsylvania budget

| Monday, June 11, 2012, 7:49 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett revealed little Monday about his closed-door budget negotiations with his fellow Republicans who lead the state Legislature as he tried to score other victories for his agenda before lawmakers take their summer break from Harrisburg.

Corbett said he wants the state's spending at a "reasonable number," though a top Republican lawmaker suggested the divide between the governor and lawmakers is about $233 million on a $27 billion-plus budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Corbett wants a spending plan that leaves $500 million in reserve at the end of next year, while the Republicans who lead the House and Senate had produced a budget plan that would set aside $267 million.

"That's obviously the range," Scarnati said. "I would think we're going to have to go up, and he's going to have to come down."

Budget plans by the governor and Republican lawmakers include a $275 million tax cut for businesses and the elimination of a $150 million welfare cash benefit for nearly 70,000 disabled adults who cannot work temporarily.

With elections a few months away, Republican lawmakers continue to clash with Corbett over his proposals for deep funding cuts in education and social services as he tries to save money for rising public employee pension costs in the coming years.

Minority Democrats have not been invited to Corbett's closed-door meetings with Republican lawmakers, which began last week.

But Corbett will need votes from Democratic senators to help get his former chief of staff, Bill Ward, confirmed to an Allegheny County judgeship by the end of June.

He met yesterday with Democratic Sens. Jay Costa of Forest Hills and Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, who said they spent the meeting discussing their priorities, including education funding and the welfare cash benefit that Corbett wants to eliminate.

Meanwhile, some legislators began openly pushing for an alternative to school voucher proposals that, despite Corbett's support, have stalled in the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, said he is writing a bill that would create a $100 million tax credit program modeled on the state's $75 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which offers a tax credit on philanthropic contributions by businesses to subsidize private school scholarships or nonprofit education groups.

Christiana's evolving plan has support among House Republican leadership, though an aide to House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, cautioned that the program might be limited at the outset by the state's tight finances.

Under Christiana's plan, the money would theoretically help tens of thousands of lower-income students in struggling schools, essentially targeting the same children who would benefit from a Senate-approved bill that would take already appropriated state dollars to pay for the vouchers. That bill has faltered in the House.

The money would then be available as tuition assistance to help the children attend private schools or better public schools.

Another Corbett priority is legislation to privatize the state-owned liquor and wine store system, but on Monday he wouldn't say what, if anything, he is doing to help sway support behind a House plan sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said aides to the governor have called some individual Democrats and asked them to come to his office and talk. At least a couple who were called declined the invitation, spokesman Bill Patton said.

"We don't know for sure what enticements are being dangled, but capital budget projects might be one thing," Patton said.

The governor's office announced last week that it would restart a state capital borrowing program that helps fund civic or economic development projects. Corbett had slapped a moratorium on new projects through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program after he took office last year, but he now plans to approve about $125 million a year through it.

While each project must have an application that meets certain guidelines, lawmakers effectively preapprove projects in their district by ensuring they get on a list that the Legislature approves each year.

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