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By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Action on the state budget began in earnest Monday with state Senator Jake Corman, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, releasing important details on the Senate budget plan that will be advanced this week.

The proposal would increase Governor Tom Corbett's budget proposal by $500 million, with total spending rising from $27.15 billion to $27.65 billion for 2012-13. The Senate plan rejects $191 million in fund transfers and new revenue and proposes new spending cuts of $165 million. Those spending reductions were not yet detailed.

According to a Capitolwire.com report (subscription required), the Senate budget plan:

  • Restores $245 million to higher education;
  • Does not include block grants for county human services or basic education;
  • Reduces the county human services funding cut from 20% to 10%;
  • Restores $50 million to Accountability Block Grants (which fund quality pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten); 
  • Restores $14 million in cuts to early childhood education;
  • Reduces the transfer from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund (Key ‘93 Fund) from $38 million to $19 million; 
  • Cuts PHEAA by $8 million rather than the $19 million proposed by the Governor; and
  • Maintains $59 million for the CURE health research program in the Tobacco Settlement Fund.

Senator Corman, who announced the details, said the Senate wanted to take a step back on the proposed education block grant because "a lot of people are opposed to it" and will wait to get more feedback from school districts. On the human services block grant, Corman said, "we did not get into whether it is block granted or not." 

It’s not clear that a 10% cut in county human services will seem like much of a victory to the folks fighting that battle. And since House leaders had been talking $100 million for Accountability Block Grants, there may be some trading to come. It’s not clear whether we can get a spend number higher than $27.615 billion so there is a lot more work to be done.

Will welfare programs get cut again?

The Senate plan includes $40 million in revenue from "recalculating Social Security and welfare costs." The Social Security side is what school advocates have identified as double counting on charter school Social Security payment. The $165 million in unspecified spending cuts, plus the welfare savings, could be a cause for concern.

The preliminary revenue estimate released by the Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) last week provided crucial cover to state lawmakers who have been hammered for months in Harrisburg and in the press about the consequences of the Governor’s proposed cuts. The IFO, which was established precisely for the purpose of providing a revenue estimate "independent" from the Governor, projects that Pennsylvania will end the current fiscal year with about a $400 million balance, and raise $400 million more than originally projected in the new fiscal year.

To make the Senate plan more palatable to lawmakers, especially those in the House loathe to spend a dime more even if bridges are falling down around them, Senator Corman argued that the spending plan would meet TABOR targets. That, of course, should send shivers down all of our spines.  

TABOR — the Taxpayer Bill of Rights — is the failed experiment in Colorado, which limited state spending to a formula of inflation plus population growth. If tax collections run higher than that, officials are supposed to send the money back to taxpayers as a rebate. In 2005, voters in Colorado passed a referendum suspending this crazy system for five years. 

Why would voters turn down a tax rebate check? I guess they tired of the gimmick. The last time I looked, local governments had passed 1,400 tax increases to make up for state funding cuts.

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