HARRISBURG, Pa. — Republicans on the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a spending blueprint that would hold the line on taxes, but would scale back increases for education and human services proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett while relying heavily on the unlikely sell-off of the state's wine and liquor operations.
The next stop for the $29.1 billion budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 is the floor of the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives, even though changes loom in the Senate.
The 21-14 party-line vote culminated more than two hours of partisan debate over the proposal, which relies partly on a plan to privatize the state liquor stores whose passage is far from assured, in the final week of a tumultuous fiscal year.
"This is a solid spending plan that puts the priorities of our citizens first," said Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, the committee chairman.
Democrats said the funding increase for public schools, in particular, is inadequate.
"It is a half-a-loaf kind of budget," countered the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Joseph Markosek of Allegheny County. "What message does this budget send to the citizens of the commonwealth? It looks as if we have given up, that we don't care about their needs."
Overall, it would scale back Corbett's proposed $29.4 billion plan by about $300 million in an effort to help resolve a projected $1.7 billion imbalance in his plan, largely torn open by collapsing tax collections. It would increase spending by about $727 million, or almost 2.6 percent, over the current year's approved budget.
In the Senate, leaders from both parties have been meeting privately to discuss their strategy for balancing the budget, but a consensus has yet to emerge. In any case, the passage of any plan to sell hundreds of private retail or wholesale liquor licenses is essentially dead.
Corbett, a Republican who is running for re-election, has complicated the always tenuous budget negotiations this year by demanding reductions in future public employee pension benefits as a condition for his willingness to consider a tax increase to close his budget's shortfall.
Democrats are pressing for higher taxes on the booming natural gas industry and tobacco sales, but the House Republican bill would not raise taxes.
Rather, it would help fill the gap with revenue including $380 million from selling off the state's wine and liquor operations, $227 million in transfers from special funds, and $48 million from a proposed two-year suspension of an array of tax credits including one for Keystone Opportunity Zones for economically distressed communities. It also would reduce projected tax refunds by about $200 million and count on another $200 million in leftover program money.
The proposal would keep some of Corbett's one-time maneuvers to save money, including postponing nearly $400 million in payments to providers for medical care and behavioral health services for the poor. It would not, however, postpone $170 million in public pension payments, as Corbett had proposed.
Public schools would see an extra $100 million, including $70 million for instruction and operations, $20 million for special education and $10 million for school construction projects. But the new, $340 million "Ready to Learn" block grant program proposed by Corbett in his February budget plan was jettisoned.
In any case, for many of the state's 500 school districts, "the need far exceeds $70 million," said Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne.
Increases proposed by Corbett for hospitals and nursing homes that treat the poor and services for the intellectually and physically disabled would be scaled back.
The departments of Environmental Protection, Corrections and the Pennsylvania State Police were all targeted for modest increases, while spending for higher education would remain at this year's level.
Democrats also have lobbied for a Medicaid expansion under the 2010 federal health care law to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.