Pa. budget passes with more money for schools, nursing homes and no tax increases –

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The Republican-led Pennsylvania Legislature on Friday night passed the state budget with more money for schools and nursing homes and no tax increases.

While the majority party called the spending plan a “historic investment,” some Democrats are calling it a “missed opportunity.”

The Pennsylvania House passed the budget 140-61, and the Senate passed it 43-7. The budget bill now heads to Gov. Tom Wolf, who said he will sign it next week.

Republicans are pointing to more than $13 billion in funding headed to preschool through 12th grade as the largest education investment in Pennsylvania history. 

Democrats say it’s not enough when some students in impoverished districts will still have to go to asbestos-filled schools where it’s not safe to drink the water. 

“While some may call this historic funding…our students needed transformational funding,” said House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia. 

The $40 billion spending plan was negotiated by top House and Senate leaders and Wolf’s office. Both parties got a little of what they wanted, but not all of what they wanted, as spending increased about 8% compared to last year’s budget. 

For example, Wolf wanted more than $1 billion to be added to education funding, and it ended up being a $416 million increase.

The funding boost is targeted at “the most underfunded districts that disproportionately serve students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities and English learners,” Wolf said.

The governor showed his support for the budget late Friday night, pointing out that Pennsylvania provides almost $2 billion more a year for education than when he took office. 

“Our economy has weathered the pandemic, and now is roaring forward. We are a commonwealth on the comeback,” Wolf said in a statement. “This budget will help our state move forward and rebuild a strong, equitable economy that works for Pennsylvanians.”

Pennsylvania’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 reflects ongoing needs after the coronavirus crisis and includes the following: 

  • $13.5 billion for K-12 education
  • $450 million for rental assistance
  • $350 million for mortgage assistance
  • $282 million for nursing homes and long-term care facilities
  • $279 million for roads and bridges
  • $36 million for help paying water bills
  • $30 million for violence prevention
  • $3 million for food banks and soup kitchens

“We got more money for schools, seniors, violence prevention and roads and bridges, but that’s not enough,” said House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton. 

The biggest criticism from McClinton and other Democrats is that Republicans are saving more than $7 billion of a $10 billion surplus. More than $7 billion of that surplus comes from the federal stimulus in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was designed to help people recover from the pandemic.

“Where is the help?” she said on the House floor. “We haven’t done enough…I thought the folks in this place wanted to lower property taxes. I thought the folks in this place wanted to help small businesses.”

Harris criticized lawmakers for not using the surplus to fairly fund schools or help Pennsylvanians who continue to suffer as a result of the pandemic. 

“This isn’t our money,” he said. “We should be giving money back to Pennsylvanians in property tax relief. We should be giving the money back to Pennsylvanians in better schools.”

“The next time a property tax bill comes to your house and you struggle to afford it, remember that some folks up here said we’ve done enough and can hide away our surplus,” Harris said. 

Previous coverage: Pa. lawmakers, Wolf close to budget deadline: 5 things to watch

Stimulus: Pennsylvania got $7B in federal stimulus money. How will state lawmakers, Wolf spend it?

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the budget will put nearly $3 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund “so we are not caught shorthanded.”

He said the way state lawmakers are managing taxpayer money is the way many Pennsylvanians manage their home budgets — by saving for the unexpected. 

Lawmakers are concerned they could hit a deficit again in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

“By learning from the past and wisely managing a large influx of one-time federal money in Pennsylvania to meet current and future needs, we can be certain that regardless of what comes we won’t have to go back to taxpayers for more of their hard-earned money,” Benninghoff said. 

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said Pennsylvanians can be proud “knowing their hard-earned dollars are moving the state out of a pandemic and into a brighter future.”

When Senate Democrats debated the bill, they said the money shouldn’t go to the Rainy Day Fund because people are still suffering from the pandemic.

“It’s raining now,” said. Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia. “Many of us in this chamber are ready to mobilize on behalf of the Pennsylvanians left behind by this budget.”

He and Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, criticized Republican lawmakers for not including hazard pay for the “frontline heroes” who worked throughout the pandemic. 

“These federal dollars could have been allocated…,” she said. “One more day living in the economic anxiety of Pennsylvania.”

Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, said he remembers when state lawmakers spent federal stimulus money from the recession in 2010 and then had a huge shortfall the following year.

“We lost a governor because of it,” he said.

Wolf successfully campaigned for governor in 2014 by accusing former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, of cutting $1 billion from Pennsylvania’s education budget. The Democrat was able to do that because Corbett did not renew an investment in schools made possible by federal relief money during the recession. 

Lawmakers don’t want to get in a position where they make large, one-time investments they can’t sustain or be forced into a tax increase to sustain those investments, he said.

“We cannot afford to do that again,” Scavello said. “This is a time when we need to live within our means.”

Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said the fight is not over with the end of session. 

There’s some progress, but “no touchdown,” he said.

The state needs to act immediately to finish the work and help Pennsylvanians who are suffering, Hughes said. 

“We can’t wait a whole year,” he said. “We have a lot to do when we come back in September.”

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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