HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A budget package that sends more money to Pennsylvania’s schools and services for the intellectually disabled while making big savings bets went to the governor’s desk Friday without what some lawmakers called the hardest part: figuring out how to pay for it.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supports the $32 billion spending plan, but has not said how he would handle an unbalanced budget bill if lawmakers can’t agree on how to cover a $2 billion-plus shortfall in the coming days.
The main appropriations bill passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate by large, bipartisan majorities on Friday, the last day of the fiscal year.
“There’s another big piece of this that needs to be finished, right?” Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, said during floor comments before voting for the budget bill. “This isn’t the way we normally pay our bills at home, or spend. We make sure that we’ve got the money first before we do this, we all know that, but now the really hard work is coming.”
The state government’s entrenched post-recession deficit is aggravated this year by its biggest cash shortfall since 2010, sending anti-tax Republican majority leaders in search of ways to borrow a substantial chunk of the missing money.
That drew criticism from some lawmakers.
“I think it’s wonderful that we provide services to people, but let’s be upfront, let’s be honest, let’s tell people how we’re going to pay for those services,” Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, said during floor debate before voting against it. “Everyone wants something, but no one wants to pay for something, and when you have a borrow-and-spend budget, we as a Legislature are doing exactly that.”
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, suggested Friday that a leading option is borrowing as much as $1.5 billion against future revenue from Pennsylvania’s share of the landmark 1998 multi-state settlement with tobacco companies.
An expansion of casino-style gambling is being debated, while Wolf, Democrats and some southeastern Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers want a new tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production in the nation’s No. 2 natural gas state.
The $32 billion figure falls between what Wolf had sought in his February proposal and the no-increase budget bill the House passed in April, strictly with Republican support. The governor’s office contends spending is virtually flat under the package. Counting the amounts above the last approved budget of $31.5 billion, the increase is nearly 3 percent.
The state’s pension obligations drove spending higher, while public schools straining with rising pension costs would get an increase of $100 million, or 2 percent. Services for adults with intellectual disabilities or autism are getting a big boost and hospitals and children’s groups gave good reviews to the spending bill, which also reversed tens of millions of dollars in cuts sought by House Republicans to county-administered social services.
“We’re sending our ‘thank you’ notes out,” said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
Many other services and agencies will see no increase, including a Department of Environmental Protection beset by years of funding cuts. The plan asks Wolf’s administration to find savings across its agency administrative budgets and in the Medicaid program that provides medical or long-term nursing care to nearly one-in-four Pennsylvanians.
It also anticipates savings from a shrinking prison population, reversing years of cost growth.
Approximately $600 million in aid to Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and Penn awaited the passage of a revenue package.
For the second straight year, the Legislature sent an on-time, bipartisan spending bill to Wolf, but with no plan to pay for parts of it.
Last year, Wolf let the plan become law without his signature when the 10-day signing period expired — despite questions about whether the move was constitutional — and lawmakers delivered a $1.3 billion funding package three days later. On Friday, his office said it expects a revenue package can pass in the next 10 days, allowing Wolf can sign a complete budget package.
Without a signed budget plan in place Saturday, the state loses some of its spending authority, although the Wolf administration said it anticipated no program or service interruptions, at least in the next 10 days.
Under a 2009 court decision, employees are to remain paid, and the Wolf administration can tap ongoing tax collections to continue services involving public health and safety and those required by law, such as unemployment compensation.