After operating without a fiscal budget for almost 10 months last fiscal year, many Pennsylvania lawmakers are signaling that they hope to pass the state budget on time this year.
Yesterday, the state House of Representatives passed a $31.55 billion plan by a vote of 132-68.
With the end of the fiscal year looming, the bill must make it through the Senate and onto Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk — to be on time at least.
For his part, the governor has publicly prioritized balancing the budget, investing in education and figuring out ways to stem the heroin and opioid crisis.
House Democratic leader Frank Dermody, D-Westmoreland/Allegheny, said the bill delivers a balanced, on-time budget that avoids broad-based tax increases.
In a press conference following the bipartisan vote, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said: “We’ve worked very hard in a bipartisan fashion over the last number of weeks to try to get to a spending proposal that the House was united in supporting.”
Representatives are touting the bill’s passage in the House as a bipartisan example of success.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, tweeted:
We can work together, both sides of the aisle, to get a #PABudget done on time!
— Rep. Joe Markosek (@RepJoeMarkosek) June 28, 2016
Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Centre/Clinton, tweeted about the bill’s general appeal:
Today I supported a commonsense, bipartisan budget. Click here to read my press release. https://t.co/TVqTyrwXBv
— Rep. Mike Hanna (@RepMikeHanna) June 29, 2016
But passing the Senate might be more difficult than Hanna and Markosek make it out to be.
The House’s spending bill increases the budget $1.4 billion from last year and that funding needs to come from somewhere.
The Legislature opted against increasing the state income and sales taxes, but is looking to increase taxes on tobacco and to expand gambling beyond the walls of casinos. The Legislature also cites the tax amnesty program, which is currently awaiting passage in the Senate, and the recently passed liquor law as additional funding avenues.
Markosek said he believes the House’s plan for the 2016-2017 budget is the right financial decision. In a tweet yesterday, before passage of the bill, he said the budget strengthens the commonwealth’s financial foundation.
In a video on his blog, Wolf referred to the budget passing through the House as part of the budget process. Instead of claiming the budget battle is over, Wolf highlighted his priorities as the process moves forward. “We need to have a truly balanced budget,” he said.
Wolf stressed the social investments that must accompany a balanced budget. “We need to have a budget that invests in education at all levels,” he said.
Though the proposed budget doesn’t increase investment in Pennsylvania’s system of higher education, it does increase funding to other levels of education.
Within a $250 million increase over last year’s budget, $200 million is devoted to K–12; $30 million goes toward pre-K and head start programs; and $22 million is set aside for special education.
“The education component continues the process of restoring the $1 billion in cuts made five years ago that devastated our public schools,” Markosek said.
Beyond investing in education, Wolf said, “We need to have a budget that makes an adequate investment to counter the heroin crisis — the epidemic — that we’re facing here in Pennsylvania.”
Focusing on the opioid and heroin problem in the state already has bipartisan support. As Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, tweeted on June 23 this year:
We must show a commitment to lead Pennsylvania from addiction to recovery. https://t.co/taB5BVmSlw
— Ed Gainey (@RepGainey) June 23, 2016
When speaking of the bipartisan effort in a press release, Hanna said, "It was important for us to back our verbal and legislative commitment to this fight with real dollars in the state budget to give more Pennsylvanians access to the treatment and related services they need."
Reed said the Legislature is “a light year away and further along in the process” than it was at this time last year.
With a comparatively timely passage this year, Dermody said in a House statement that it is extremely unlikely the state will face a repeat of last year's disastrous budget impasse.
"Passing a budget is the most important job we have," he said. "People know that and they expect us to do that job. Because we worked together this year much sooner and much better, we can ensure that schools, human services and the other individuals and groups that rely on the state budget won't be left hanging for months."
After having conversations with both the Senate and governor, Reed said the budget is close to a finished product. “That’s not to say there couldn’t be a change here or a change there. But I think we’re in the ballpark of what could be a final budget proposal,” he said.
Christopher Reed is a PublicSource reporting intern. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.