Lawmakers propose new spending plan as Corbett pushes Philly-area Dems
HARRISBURG — With one day left before the state’s constitutional budget deadline, Gov. Tom Corbett on Sunday was coming up short of votes needed to push through his major agenda items: pension and liquor reform.
The General Assembly could vote on a state budget of about $29.1 billion on Monday before the midnight deadline, but changes to the state liquor and pension systems appear to be shelved as lawmakers prepare to recess for the summer this week. The state is grappling with a $1.4 billion deficit, and the budget proposal increases spending by $500 million without raising taxes.
The Senate Appropriations Commitee approved the plan in a 16-10 party line vote about 9 p.m., positioning the bill for a vote on the floor. The no-new-revenue plan includes a $300 million increase in basic funding for the state’s 500 school districts, instead of the $241 million Corbett proposed in February.
Corbett, in a last-ditch effort, attempted a compromise with Philadelphia Democrats to vote for pension changes if he agrees to a cigarette tax in that city only to fund Philadelphia schools.
Sen. Vincent Hughes and other Philadelphia Democrats rejected the proposal.
The pension issue is “dead,” Hughes said. “That door is closed. It’s over.”
Corbett “should be ashamed to tie children of the Philadelphia School District to an issue totally unrelated,” he said.
“The people of Pennsylvania will be outraged to learn that the governor happily abdicated his moral obligation to the school children of Philadelphia in a vain and cynical attempt to buy votes for unrelated pension legislation,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.
Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said the move was “about compromise.”
“He didn’t tie it at all. He said, ‘let’s talk about things,’ ” Pagni said. “They need more money for schools.”
“We need to get this done,” said Corbett, a Shaler Republican. The state pension system faces $47 billion in unfunded liability. He wants to reduce taxpayer costs for state and school pensions by changing benefits for new employees. “This is unsustainable for the future.”
Republicans controlling the House and Senate failed to coalesce around Corbett’s proposals for the pension system and liquor privatization. Corbett pushed for selling the state stores, but a fallback plan to expand private sales of beer and wine didn’t garner needed support in the Senate.
Democrats called the latest budget proposal full of gimmicks, balanced using one-time funding measures. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, called the proposal “a political budget.” House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton called it “a huge shell game.”
Corbett made the push for pension reform in a 10-minute news conference given from his desk, next to Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and Budget Secretary Charles Zogby. The governor said Democrat support has been needed to pass major initiatives in the past, such as a transportation vote with a gasoline tax increase last fall.
The unfunded pension liability equals a burden of about $13,000 per taxpayer, Corbett said.
He has said he would not sign a budget without pension reform.
“We’ll take a look at it and see if it’s something I can live with,” he said of what might land on his desk.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said the House was still focused on drumming up the votes for a pension plan from Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, which Corbett supported.
“The budget will be done on time,” he said, meaning by midnight on Monday. But Turzai did not say whether that would include companion bills, called code bills, directing spending. Those could keep the General Assembly at the Capitol other days this week.
The plan does not include a tax on Marcellus shale gas drilling, which Corbett’s opponent in the November election, Democrat Tom Wolf, has championed. Corbett has opposed a severance tax on natural gas for three-and-a-half years but Zogby said in recent weeks the plan wasn’t off the table.
Costa, other statehouse Democrats and some Republicans support a severance tax to increase revenue and an expansion of Medicaid for more federal funding.
House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, said the House was short on votes for a pension bill, and the Senate was short for liquor privatization.
“It’s not, by no means, for lack of trying,” Adolph said. “We have caucused on both the issues whether it’s the House or the Senate for many hours during many days.”
Adolph said conversations on pension reform and liquor privatization could continue later in the session.
Costa said the plan with no new revenue “leaves the mess in this budget to Tom Wolf,” currently leading in the polls by double digits.
“It tells me the Republican party, the leadership of the Republican party and the House and the Senate do not have faith this administration will be there next year, and they will leave this problem for the next governor,” Costa said.
The Corbett campaign contested the allegation. Chris Pack, communications director for the Corbett campaign, said: “Governor Tom Corbett looks forward to continuing his work building a stronger Pennsylvania over the next four and a half years,” he said.
Costa said the state has an obligation to boost public school funding, which Corbett held “hostage” in order to try to achieve his agenda.
“By virtue of that, he’s blocking revenue that could be making its way into education and into human service programs,” Costa said. “To me, that’s morally wrong.”
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected]. Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].