Valley legislators want more budget details from Corbett
By Tom Yerace
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, 12:21 a.m.
Gov. Tom Corbett provided more questions than answers for local legislators in his 2014 budget address Tuesday.
Corbett outlined his $29.4 billion budget proposal that he said focuses on education, jobs, and health and human services, before a joint session of the General Assembly.
Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, said he wants the details on Corbett's health care and public pension reform.
“I would really like to know what pension reforms, what Medicaid reforms the governor has included,” Evankovich said. “The Healthy PA proposal is something I really don't know enough about.”
Healthy PA would expand Medicare to comply with the federal Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare.
“My understanding is that the reforms that are included in the HealthPA initiative are based on the assumption that the federal government will provide waivers,” Evankovich said. “If they don't provide the waivers, what will that do to the budget?”
He said there were no new policy dynamics in the speech but thinks educational policy should be improved instead of being focused on “line item detail.”
Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said Corbett's proposal is just a starting point. But he appreciates it is “paying more attention to special needs students and special needs adults.”
“I think it is a good starting framework,” Pyle said. “The skeleton is there; now we have to figure out how the muscle is laid down.”
Pyle will be involved in determining that as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which will hold budget hearings in the coming weeks. He said the increase for the Department of Public Welfare is a non-starter for most of his Republican colleagues.
“DPW's funding goes up 3 percent, which is a little bit more than the inflation rate, and we'll try to get that down to the inflation rate,” Pyle said. “The last I looked it was about 2 percent.”
Democrats: ‘Little to like'
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said there was little in Corbett's speech for Democratic legislators to like.
Although Corbett proposed a $290 million increase for education programs, most of that is in the form of grants while the basic education subsidy for public schools will be kept at last year's levels.
“School districts will still be strapped, property taxes will still go up, and there will still be 20,000 teachers out of work,” he said. “At least there is an admission that he should be funding special education. We'd been arguing that he needed to fund special education more for three years.”
The governor included a $20 million increase for special education. If divided equally among the state's 500 districts, each would get an additional $40,000.
Dermody said the allocation is “better than nothing” and sounds like a lot, but is woefully inadequate.
Dermody said neighboring states now are debating how to use budget surpluses. He said that's not the case in Pennsylvania despite Corbett's claims that his administration is leading the state to an economic revival.
“The $2 billion in (tax) breaks he has given up to corporations really hasn't resulted in an increase in jobs,” Dermody said. ”He won't implement a severance tax on Marcellus shale, but he wants to drill more on state lands.
“Pennsylvania is struggling,” he said. “To suggest that this recession in Pennsylvania is over is not true.”
Dermody said Democratic legislators are willing to work with Corbett — to a point — to find solutions to the state's problems, particularly on state pension costs.
“We are going to continue to fight for what we think is important.” he said.
Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, said: “I am very concerned that part of the plan for distributing the new education dollars is through a new funding formula. It may not be balanced and will actually escalate the funding disparity and plight of economically-troubled schools.”
He said Corbett did not come up with a “sustainable and responsible plan” to fund public schools.
“I think his taxing policies are unfair because they favor corporations at the expense of everyone else,” said Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vander-grift. “With Marcellus shale we have the lowest tax of any gas-producing state. Why aren't the gas producers paying their fair share?”
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, said, “While I am concerned that Gov. Corbett is again limiting state support for our state-owned universities to current levels, it is gratifying to see a proposal for a new competitive grant program targeting middle-income students who currently receive little to no support for their education expenses.
“These grants will help provide much greater access for young people to attend our state-owned institutions of higher education.”
Although seated on opposite sides of the aisle, Petrarca, and state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, shared a similar views on some of Corbett's claims, particularly his boast that taxes have not been raised for the three years of his reign.
“I have a question on how the Gov. says he hasn't raised taxes in three years when people are paying 10 cents more at the gas pump because he signed a tax increase before the end of last year,” Metcalfe said.
Petrarca said: “I thought it was certainly disingenuous when he said he didn't raise taxes. After what happened with that gas tax, what he said made no sense to me.”
Metcalfe also took Corbett to task for saying education is the state's biggest expense. He said the Department of Public Welfare's allocation, which he wants reduced, is $11.4 billion under the governor's budget compared to $11.19 billion for education.
“Why would you give a budget address and state things that are just not true?” Metcalfe asked.
Metcalfe said he couldn't get past that and focus on the rest of Corbett's speech.
“If you are going to come out in your opening remarks and tell me something that is not true,” Metcalfe said, “how can I believe anything else that you are telling me?”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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