With budget signed, issues stay unresolved
Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law on June 30 a $28.38 billion general fund budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, sending the state legislature into summer recess with three major issues still left on the table.
Included in the budget, which reflects a 2.3 percent spending increase from last year's, are provisions that grant a record high $11.63 billion in state education funding and an additional $14.7 million to the Pennsylvania State Police. The Department of Health also will receive an extra $1.5 million, part of which will boost autism intervention services by 20 percent.
But as the state legislature closes the 2012-13 fiscal year, the lawmakers leave Harrisburg for three months with questions regarding transportation, pension reform and the privatization of liquor sales largely unanswered.
“I can't help but think that, to some extent, we as lawmakers failed the people we represent,” said state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport.
The greatest failure of the 2013 summer session, Brewster said, was the state House of Representatives' inability to pass a bipartisan transportation bill that the Senate approved 45 to 5 in early June.
The Senate Democrat, who did not support Corbett's budget proposal, said the Senate transportation plan included about $1.9 billion for road and bridge repair with $480 million for mass transit. Republican amendments in the House reduced those figures to about $1.5 billion and $187 million, respectively.
With minimal support on either side of the aisle, the amended bill never passed the House floor.
State Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, said House Republicans opposed the bill because it would have lifted the cap on the state's oil franchise tax to generate revenue.
That cap hasn't been lifted in more than 20 years. The move would have raised gasoline prices by five to 10 cents per gallon, he said.
“Every other state in the nation has gone away from gas tax to fund infrastructure,” Evankovich said. “We need to move toward other revenues.”
State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, helped champion the transportation bill. Given the state of Pennsylvania's roads and bridges, he said, the House should have prioritized citizens' safety rather than tax concerns.
“I understand that people don't want to pay more at the pump,” he said, “but the primary responsibility of government is to protect its people. All it's going to take is one accident and everyone will jump in line to get it done.”
“What if it's a bus full of school children? Then, it's too late.”
According to Evankovich, the state in 1960 appropriated 30 percent of its budget for road and bridge repair. In this year's budget bill, that area comprises only 8 percent of spending.
In a written statement released July 1, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, proposed using cuts in public welfare to help fund the transportation repairs.
“If we cut the Department of Public Welfare budget by 10 percent, more than $1 billion in revenue could be generated for necessary (transportation) infrastructure improvements and repairs,” he said.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, took issue with Metcalfe's remarks: “It's a preposterous idea to think that we should steal money out of the hands of the people who need it most and put it toward transportation when we have other viable methods of generating that revenue.”
Ferlo, who voted in support of both the general fund budget and the defeated transportation bill, said its halt will lead to reduced weight limits on bridges, bridge and road closures, loss of maintenance jobs and millions of dollars lost in private enterprise across the state.
In his opinion, issues regarding transportation, pension reform and liquor privatization went unresolved because they were treated as a collective addendum to the state budget bill rather than separate, pressing issues.
“We could have been working on transportation and pension reform since April,” Ferlo said.
“Instead, all three issues were grouped together and rushed through the Legislature.”
The state Legislature is expected to revisit those issues when session resumes in September.
Despite the overall spending increase from last year, House Republicans lauded the state budget bill as “fiscally responsible” and “a victory for limited government.”
For Metcalfe, one of the greatest accomplishments of the bill's passing was the defeat of the “Senate's backdoor attempt to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.”
The Senate in late June inserted Medicaid expansion into the budget's state Welfare Code. The Republican-controlled House stripped that language with little resistance from the Senate, also conservative, before sending the bill to Corbett's desk.
Ferlo said failing to establish communication with the Obama administration regarding the Affordable Care Act in the state's Welfare Code cost Pennsylvania an estimated 35,000 new jobs in the health-care industry. In his estimation, the original legislation would have provided almost half a million Pennsylvanians with access to “affordable health care options.”
Several House Republicans even praised record spending in this year's budget bill for state education.
According to the governor's office, 41 cents of every taxpayer dollar is earmarked for education. The budget increases basic education funding by $122 million, and establishes a record high of $10 billion invested in K-12 education.
Local school districts that will benefit most from the 2013-14 state budget are Armstrong, Kiski and Plum. Funding for each district will increase by at least $250,000.
The Allegheny Valley, Riverview and Leechburg Area school districts each saw less than a $60,000 increase from last year.
While state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, views the increased funding for education as progress, he said it fails to make up for “Gov. Corbett's devastating cuts to education in the 2011-12 fiscal year.”
“It's good that we're increasing funding for public education but it doesn't even begin to make up for the teacher layoffs, larger classrooms, poorer meals and lack of supplies that we were hit with two years ago,” he said. “We're doing our children and our future a disservice if we don't further address this next year.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.