By Karen Langley and Laura Olson
Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG (June 21st) – Gov. Tom Corbett and Republican legislative leaders announced on Wednesday they had agreed on the framework of a $27.66 billion state budget, but they declined to say how adopting the higher spending level proposed by the Senate would affect funding in areas like education and welfare.
When the Senate took up the $27.14 billion budget proposed by Mr. Corbett, a Republican, it restored $245 million in cuts to higher education and halved reductions to human services, including programs for mental health and child welfare. In the announcement on Wednesday evening, Mr. Corbett acknowledged the deal added to his February proposal but declined to discuss particular spending levels until House and Senate leaders meet with their members. Some details remain under negotiation, he said.
“That is a higher number than I came in,” Mr. Corbett said. “We can put money back into some programs, we’re just not going to go into the details.”
The weeks of negotiation preceding the announcement have involved policy proposals as well as the budget. But Mr. Corbett and the Republican leaders would not discuss which of the topics — save a tax credit intended to draw a Shell Oil Co. ethane-processing plant to Beaver County — they hope to approve next week. Mr. Corbett said he believed an agreement had been reached on the tax credit proposal.
“I feel very confident that we’re going to see some very good legislation from the General Assembly, the House and the Senate, and we’re going to have a very productive week next week,” he added.
The governor said that recent revenue collections, including projections for the current month, led him to conclude the state could sustain a $27.66 billion budget. Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said projections that the state will collect $100 million more than expected in June played a role in reaching the overall number.
The budget passed by the Senate reversed $245 million in spending cuts proposed for higher education, including the 14 state-owned universities and the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Temple University. It also restored $84 million to human services programs, dropping a 20 percent proposed cut to 10 percent. After the announcement, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, declined to say if the budget framework included agreement to maintain those particular restorations. But he said the deal contained no new “major spending initiatives.”
“We’re going to be spending the amount that the Senate sent over, and there are no new lines,” Mr. Scarnati said. “You can take from that that it’s significant restorations.”
Mr. Corbett and the Republican leaders have been meeting in negotiation since earlier this month. As the meeting schedule accelerated in recent days, participants acknowledged they were approaching an effective deadline to resolve their differences so legislation could be prepared and ushered to the governor’s desk before the fiscal year begins on July 1.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, as he left a negotiating session on Wednesday afternoon. “The longer we don’t have a spend number and start drafting this thing, the more difficult it is to get it to the June 30th deadline.”
Mr. Corman said he believed participants were “on the precipice” of reaching an agreement at that point.
Earlier in the day, a ranking Republican senator said an education policy discussed in negotiations was on its way forward. The governor has sought to create a commission to examine funding for charter schools and special education.
Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who is the Republican whip, said his own proposal for a commission to create a formula for allocating future increases in special education funding may be amended in the House to include a commission on funding for charter and cyber charter schools.
The bill in its current form unanimously passed a House panel earlier this week. It would call for a commission to develop a formula that assigns students in special education to one of three categories based on need. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said leaders aim to move the proposal through the House.