Corbett touts education funding in $29.4 billion state budget proposal
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday outlined a budget proposal to close a $1.2 billion deficit and increase spending by $925 million without raising taxes, a move his critics claim is built on gimmicks to aid his re-election bid.
The $29.4 billion spending blueprint emphasizing education increases was presented as Corbett, a Shaler Republican campaigning for his second term, faces withering fire from Democrats — including seven gubernatorial candidates. They say Corbett is using the budget to make up for huge education cuts during his first three years in office. Budget Secretary Charles Zogby and Corbett dispute that assertion.
“We addressed our state's fiscal problems by eliminating the deficit and without adding to the fiscal problems of our citizens by raising their taxes,” Corbett told lawmakers.
His 2014-15 budget would channel $241 million in block grants to public schools and add $20 million for special education, plus a $10 million increase for 1,670 children to enter preschool programs.
“At first glance, this (education investment) appears to be a death-bed conversion,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Harrisburg.
Despite the deficit, Corbett's plan would increase spending by 3.3 percent. Zogby said the state closes the gap and boosts spending by projecting 4 percent revenue growth. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, who called it the best budget speech of Corbett's tenure, said the revenue projection is “optimistic” and might be “refined” through the budget process.
Corbett outlined new revenue from a $225 million transfer from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to pay the state's share of pension fund obligations to school employees. The budget counts on other savings, such as $175 million in reform of state pensions and $125 million in Medicaid changes that require federal approval. The pension changes require legislative approval and did not garner support last year.
The budget also counts $75 million from gas drilling beneath state parks and state forests from adjoining properties. An additional $150 million would be raised by allowing the state to claim unclaimed property, such as unused bank accounts, after three years of inactivity rather than five.
“You saw the governor of Pennsylvania trying to get away with gimmicks, rather than solutions,” said Treasurer Rob McCord, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. On education funding, he said, “It is clearly too little, too late.”
The 2014-15 budget is a “pivot point” for Corbett, Zogby said, after tough fiscal years.
Democrats said they hope this budget is his last.
Calling it “an election-year budget,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said it relies too much on one-time revenue sources. “It uses rubber bands and Band-Aids without concern for the future.”
“All that does is kick the can down the road, make it more difficult next year,” said Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County, conceded there's some risk in Corbett's revenue projections and use of one-time funds. But Corman said, “If we don't do pension reform, there's a hole and it's on us (the Legislature). Pension reform is the cornerstone of all of this.”
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said he thinks “these are sustainable options the governor has put on the table.” Corbett's proposal, which needs legislative approval by June 30, includes:
• $13.7 million for four state police cadet classes that will train 350 troopers;
• A 10 percent boost for rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs;
• A public-private partnership funded with $10 million from a state program to attract job creators to Pennsylvania;
• Investing more than $450 million for job training;
• Legalizing keno to boost state lottery programs to pay for senior citizen programs.
Corbett again urged lawmakers to eliminate Pennsylvania's “antiquated system of state-owned liquor stores.” Efforts to privatize the system stalled in June.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Melissa Daniels contributed to this report.