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Legislature OKs state budget; critics say it's not balanced

| Thursday, June 30, 2016, 7:39 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — Meeting a midnight deadline, the GOP-dominated General Assembly on Thursday approved a $31.6 billion state budget, even with critics saying it's out of balance and one senator describing the process as “total madness.”

The Senate-approved budget, OK'd by a 144-54 vote in the House, now goes to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature. While it technically meets the constitutional deadline of completion by June 30, the revenue bill to pay for the spending still hasn't been made public.

“I have been able to witness total madness ... the House and Senate have passed spending without determining where additional revenue sources are going to come from,” said Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, a likely candidate for governor.

Senate officials said the budget package requires no general tax hike. There are several budget-related trailer bills that still need approval.

Approving a budget without the money to pay for it is “not responsible,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry. “Spendaholic disease” has infected the membership, he said.

As a result of the “legacy of last year's debacle” of a nine-month budget impasse, combined with a general election this fall, elected officials would prefer “stability and a subdued cycle” rather than ramped-up partisan warfare, said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. All House seats and half of the Senate face election in November.

The budget includes $200 million more for basic education funding, a priority of the governor's.

Wolf spoke favorably of the budget, calling it a “bipartisan, compromise budget that invests more money in early childhood, K through 12 and higher education, and also provides vital resources to combat the heroin crisis.”

Wolf said he will “sign the General Appropriations bill as soon as there is a sustainable revenue package to pay for it, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to achieve this.”

Closed-door meetings were under way Thursday to develop a revenue plan. Taxes on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco were part of the House plan. Online gaming and “wine privatization,” as Republicans were calling it, were other measures expected to help finance the budget.

“Talks continue to be cordial and progress. We are working hard to arrive at a revenue plan that provides additional money for the state without asking taxpayers for more income or sales taxes,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.

He said the state “cannot endure a budget impasse similar to last year, nor will we.”

“It's really important to have an on-time budget that invests in services in the state,” said Samantha Balbier, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership.

Human services will not receive increases, but at least nonprofit agencies know the outcome and can move forward, she said.

Kate Dewey of the Forbes Fund, the nonprofit arm of the Pittsburgh Foundation, called an on-time budget “extraordinarily important.”

“Last year created such havoc,” she said. “It really took agility to navigate the nine-month budget impasse.”

It would take millions of dollars to make human service providers whole from last year, she said.

“This budget is a compromise. It's not what everybody wanted,” said Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “Senate Bill 1073 will not rely on any broad-based tax increases, such as raising the personal income tax or the sales tax.”The overwhelming majority of the spending increase is due to mandated increases, he said.

“With our pension cost for the Public School Employees' Retirement System rising by $345 million and our State Employees' Retirement System rising by $143 million, we faced a tough fiscal challenge. However, by working together we were able to produce a fiscally sound product,” he said.

“There are a lot of good things in this budget. It's reasonable,” said Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel.

Taxpayers don't think spending $1.4 billion more “is reasonable,” Metcalfe said.

A vote on money to pay for the budget, which is expected to include expanded liquor sales and online gaming, wasn't scheduled Thursday night, a House GOP spokesman said.

Carley Mossbrook, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, contributed. Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter.

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