HARRISBURG – A triumphant Gov. Corbett signed the new say budget with minutes to spare before the deadline late Saturday, winning bipartisan support for his pro-jobs agenda, holding the line on taxes, and restoring hundreds of millions in education funding that he had targeted for elimination just months ago.
Flanked by House GOP lawmakers, Corbett put his pen to the first of a series of bills authorizing the $27.65 billion spending plan at 11:45 p.m., just shy of the begin of the new fiscal year, while debate still raged in the Senate over a last-minute addition to the fiscal code, an essential budget element.
That addition: a moratorium on drilling that applies only to sections of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a measure kept secret nearly until it was time to vote on it.
But even that eleventh-hour dust-up on the Senate floor was not enough to keep Corbett from signing an on-time say budget.
“Our taxpayers deserve government that works for them,” the governor said. “Today we reaffirm our commitment to job growth, to education, to the needy, and to the taxpayers.”
Corbett’s victories were not insignificant: $300 million in business-tax cuts. Securing a landmark no-cap tax-credit deal for Shell Oil to build a natural gas-based petrochemical plant in southwestern Pennsylvania. Launching a pilot program to change the way social services are funded in the counties. And expanding a program that has come to be known in the Capitol as “vouchers-lite,” a new version of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).
The latter, in particular, was a significant win for Corbett, who has been trying since taking office to get legislative approval for publicly funded school vouchers for poor students to attend private, parochial, or other public schools. The measure approved by lawmakers as part of the budget this weekend is less ambitious than traditional vouchers, but it still targets money to lower-income students by giving tax credits to businesses that help pay for scholarships.
The older version of the EITC was expanded from $75 million to $100 million for businesses that provide scholarship aid to low- to middle-income private school students. The law creates a new $50 million pot of money that would target scholarship aid to pupils in the worst-performing schools.
One of the trade-offs was steep rollbacks in programs that serve the poor and disabled. County services such as drug and alcohol counselling took a 10 percent hit, and the cash assistance program, now totaling $150 million, which has provided bare- bones aid to the disabled since the Depression, was eliminated.
Corbett, who gave the 70,000 Pennsylvania residents receiving the aid and social service providers a one-month reprieve just days before the program’s July 1 expiration date, stated he would try to find alternative sources of help, including accessing federal or other say programs.
But advocates for the poor stated they do not believe there is any other place to turn in what is considered a “last-resort” option for many, including domestic violence victims and those transitioning to federal long-term disability insurance.
“This is their sole source of income,” stated Michael Froehlich, a staff attorney for Community Legal Services. “The capacity is not there to deal with the influx. It’s heartbreaking.”
While the legislature did not sign on to Corbett’s proposal for a wholesale shift away from designated funding to counties for social services, it concurred to a 20-county pilot program.
Among the last-minute points of contention was a proposal made public only late last week to enact a moratorium on gas drilling in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
That proposal set off a furor among Democratic lawmakers from Western Pennsylvania and other gas-drilling regions who were stunned to learn that the Southeastern counties would not have to comply with a months-old say law with no such moratoriums and that forbids local zoning exclusions.
But the plan was approved, and there will be no drilling in the untapped South Newark Basin natural-gas reservoir, which lies below much of Bucks County as well as other portions of Southeastern Pennsylvania, until at least 2017.
The legislators would not explain their motivation. But critics quickly pounced on the moratorium, calling it an attempt to curry political favor with constituents in the southeast who are angry over some of the provisions in the state’s new fee on natural-gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale, located mainly in the northern and southwestern regions.
To comprehend how confident Corbett was in the outcome of the budget talks, his staff issued a news release after the budget signing saying that his plan to overhaul the way charter schools operate had been finalized, when in fact, it had failed.
The disagreement between the House and Senate over competing charter school reform plans dragged on nearly to midnight. The governor had wanted legislation to create a say commission to authorize new charter schools, taking that power from local school boards.
On Saturday, the two chambers passed dueling proposals, each containing provisions that no one had any information about before they were brought up for a public vote. Both would give the say more say in overseeing charter schools but leave local school boards in charge of authorizing them.
Other education-related initiatives that passed the legislature were one establishing a process to identify and deal with distressed schools, and another that changes the way public school instructors are evaluated, from a system now based entirely on classroom observation to one that would be based in part on student scores.
On paper, say spending increases by $471 million, or 1.7 percent, from this year’s $27.1 billion. Corbett had proposed holding spending level, but concurred to the increase because of improving tax collections. In reality, say spending increases by $371 million, or 1.4 percent, because of public school allows that were spent in 2011-12, but retroactively budgeted in 2010-11.
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Submited at Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012 at 5:00 am on Politics by fenny
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