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Pa. House approves $31.5 billion budget; Senate next

HARRISBURG — A proposed state budget cleared its first hurdle Tuesday night, but still has a ways to go before the cash begins to flow.

The full House approved a $31.5 billion budget proposal by a vote of 132-68. The proposal would boost spending by $1.4 billion, almost 5 percent, though it is significantly less than the $33.3 billion sought by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The proposal relies on taxes raised on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and new revenue from an online gaming proposal that also passed the House on Tuesday.

Wolf, a Democrat, and Senate Republicans, who will receive the budget in the next few days, have not agreed to it, but Rep. William Adolph, R-Delaware County, the House appropriations chairman, said it is a “middle of the road” proposal.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor is hopeful that all sides can reach an agreement.

With the Thursday night deadline looming, tensions were high on the House floor as lawmakers hoped to pass the budget in a timelier manner than last year’s nine-month impasse between Wolf and the GOP House and Senate.

“I want to suggest that our 2016-17 spending plan is both an ending and a beginning,” said Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville. “It is an ending because it does not rely as much on one-time sources of revenue. … It is a beginning because it represents a return of a more positive level of political cooperation.”

Some did not feel as inspired by the coordination on the proposal.

“This budget here … is proposing to do what so many of us railed against last year — to spend what we don’t have,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry. “Families aren’t able to do that, individual taxpayers aren’t able to spend what they don’t have. When government spends what they don’t have, it sends the bill to the taxpayer.”

Basic education funding — a top priority for the governor — would receive $200 million more than last year. Pre-K Counts, a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children, is looking at a $25 million increase, while special education would receive a $20 million boost.

Wolf asked for $34 million to combat what he calls the opioid epidemic, but would only receive $15 million under the House proposal.

“This is a very difficult year financially,” House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, stated in a press release following the vote. “Considering the size of the structural deficit and the limited revenue options we faced, producing a budget that is balanced, on-time and includes important new investments for schools is a positive step forward.”

The legalization of online gambling and daily fantasy sports, in partner with “wine privatization” passed this month, would boost revenues to cover the increases, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leadership.

Cigarettes would go up $1 a pack. Smokeless tobacco would be taxed, but cigars would be exempt.

Some tax increases, including shifting a sales tax on utilities to natural gas customers, are being discussed. Wolf, however, is not seeking a personal income tax and sales tax increase as he did last year.


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