By Brad Bumsted
Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday presented a $29.4 billion state budget to a joint session of the General Assembly, saying it does not raise taxes, invests more than $240 million more in block grants for public schools and boosts funding for special education and early childhood education.
The budget emphasizing education comes as Corbett, a Shaler Republican campaigning for his second term, faces withering fire from Democrats -- including seven gubernatorial candidates -- for what they say are massive cuts during Corbett's first three years in office.
His Budget secretary Charles Zogby sharply disputes that assertion. Despite a $1.2 billion overall state deficit, Corbett's spending plan would increase spending by 3.3 percent. Zogby says the state closes the gap and boosts spending by projecting 4 percent revenue growth. He also outlined revenue increases including a $225 million transfer from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to pay the state's share of pension find obligations to school employees, and it counts on a variety of other savings such as $175 million in pension reform on state pensions and $125 million in Medicaid changes that require federal approval.
"You saw the governor of Pennsylvania trying to get away with gimmicks rather than solutions," said State Treasurer Rob McCord, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. On education funding, he said, "It is clearly too little too late."
The 2014-15 budget is a "pivot point" for Corbett, Zogby said, after tough fiscal years since he took office in January 2011.
"We addressed our state's fiscal problems by eliminating the deficit and without adding to the fiscal problems of our citizens by raising their taxes," Corbett told lawmakers.
Democrats said they hope his fourth budget is his last. Calling it "an election year budget," Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said it is too reliant on one-time revenue sources.
"It uses rubber bands and Band-Aids without concern for the future." Those one-time revenues counted by Corbett might total about $1 billion, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County. He conceded there's some risk, but Corman said, "if we don't do pension reform there's a hole and it's on us (the legislature). Pension reform is the cornerstone of all of this." His proposed spending blueprint, which needs legislative approval by a June 30 deadline, includes:
- A $241 million education block grant that Zogby says is "student focused" and is "biased" to poorer school districts. It's on top of continued funding of a $100 million account block grant to support Pre-K and kindergarten and other programs.
- $10 million increase for Pre-K, enabling 1,670 additional kids to enter pre-school programs.
- A $20 million increase for special education, the first state funding increase in six years.
- $10 million in competitive grants for "hybrid learning" programs that combine digital technologies with traditional classroom instruction, Zogby said.
"At first glance this (education investment) appears to be a death bed conversion...," said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Harrisburg.
Other budget features include:
- $13.7 million for four new state police cadet classes that will train 350 troopers.
- A 10 percent boost for rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs.
- A public-private partnership funded with $10 million from a state program to attract job creators to Pennsylvania.
- Investing more than $450 million for job training
- Legalizing fast-paced keno to boost state lottery programs to pay for senior citizen programs.
Keno revenue would fortify programs for seniors under the state Department of Aging through the Pennsylvania Lottery, freeing up other revenue for general purposes. Pennsylvania would join 15 states and the District of Columbia with keno, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most neighboring states allow the electronic numbers game that Revenue officials compare in concept to Pennsylvania's old Super 7 lottery game.
In his budget address, Corbett again called for eliminating Pennsylvania's "antiquated system of state-owned liquor stores." He said he wants to make 2014 the "last call" for state-controlled liquor sales in Pennsylvania. Efforts to privatize the system stalled in June but talks continue among lawmakers and Corbett.
"That was only a proposal," said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County. "There weren't a lot of hard facts in it. It assumes a growth rate of four percent. I hope that's true."
(c)2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)