2011-05-12 / Local & State

Current Budget Talks Could Define Corbett’s Tenure

By Mark scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The endgame for Pennsylvania’s state budget process will accelerate sharply in a day or two, when state House Republicans take the wraps off a budget bill that will become the focus of a process in Harrisburg that never really ends.

It just lurches from periods of intense activity to stages of relative dormancy.

Whatever unfolds in the coming six or eight weeks will likely have long-term policy and political repercussions for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and set the tone for his future dealings with the Legislature.

Things were bound to change after the last eight years, when Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell cast a large shadow over the process. Rendell had to cope with a majority Republican Senate for his entire tenure, and not once did he sign the state’s annual government budget before the new fiscal year began at the start of July.

Now Republicans hold both legislative chambers, and they and Corbett sorely want to get a deal done on time.

“I’m not interested, and my caucus isn’t interested, in getting anywhere close to a June 30th deadline,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.

The Senate has 20 floor session days scheduled through the end of June, the House 21. They will take up a good number of bills that are not related to the budget, but the appetite to link other legislation to the budget in a multi-component deal seems less pronounced than in previous years.

“We are not putting anything (out) as far as, ‘This has to pass in order for the budget to be passed,’” said Rep. Bill Adolph, RDelaware, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “That has not even come out of our thought process.”

An exception to that could be a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction, as advocated late last month by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R- Jefferson.

Scarnati would dedicate some of the proceeds for conservation districts, environmental and hazardous waste site clean-up and to fix roads battered by the rigs and trucks of exploration and drilling concerns. He has said it’s going to be hard to pass a budget without it.

But there is a long list of other issues that supporters would love to see make their way into the negotiations, from school vouchers and transportation infrastructure needs to new pro-business civil lawsuit rules and tighter welfare regulations.

Charles Zogby, Corbett’s budget secretary, said the governor hopes to soon sign bills on civil lawsuit rules, property tax increase limits, school choice and school “mandate relief.”

“That’s traditionally been the case – that in addition to the budget, other substantive legislation typically gets moved in the spring,” Zogby said.

This year, the budget itself is dominating the agenda.

The job of negotiators got a bit easier recently when the Revenue Department disclosed that tax collections were running $506 million ahead of projections, with two months left in the year. That new money, however, also has exposed divisions about whether to put money aside or ease cuts in Corbett’s budget proposal in education and for health care.

“It’s certain there will be changes in the appropriations for educational funding, both K-12 and higher ed,” Pileggi said. “The uncertainty is in the degree of change.”

The House Republican budget will cut hundreds of millions from the Department of Public Welfare and increase education spending, but Democrats are calling that a false choice, arguing that the windfall should be spent.

“You’re talking about cuts to the disabled, to the nursing homes and longterm care,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. “That’s where the real money is, and that’s a significant burden on people who already are among the most vulnerable among us.”

Asked about House Republican plans to take money out of the public welfare department, Zogby expressed reservations about “waste, fraud and abuse” cuts when crafting a budget.

“I can’t go to the governor and say we can predicate a government on the potential of savings,” he said.

The administration sees many ways the state could face worsening financial trouble, including expected growth in medical assistance, debt service and prison costs.

A big jump in pension costs is coming in the 2012- 13 fiscal year, an $850 million verdict against the state regarding a medical malpractice fund is before the state Supreme Court, and the economy remains fragile, Zogby said.

“This notion that we can sort of fall back into bad habits that were developed over the last eight years, where we can simply spend every available dollar and then some, that’s what got us into that problem,” he said.

Corbett seems determined to stick to a $27.3 billion spending figure, but there is pushback from the Legislature.

“Ultimately, 26 members of our caucus will need to vote for a spending plan,” Pileggi said. “It will be difficult to secure 26 votes if you’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars into a rainy day fund without some very clear justification for doing so. So far we have not seen any justification.”

Mary Soderberg, Rendell’s last budget secretary, called the $27.3 billion figure “an unnecessary line in the sand, very unnecessary. With the cuts that have been made already, to go in and make more cuts when it’s not necessary – it makes no sense.”

With his caucus about to take a big step toward Corbett’s first budget, Adolph was in tune with Zogby, cautioning that the $500 million jump largely occurred in just a single month.

“If I knew what May and June would be, I would tell you what I have plans on doing with that $500 million surplus,” he said. “But I don’t.”

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