By The Associated Press
3:23 PM EDT, June 20, 2011
With less than two weeks left in the fiscal year, top Republican lawmakers hope to finalize a state spending plan that can pass the House and Senate as early as this week and get Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature, officials said Monday.
A spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is in the final stages of negotiations and will be less than the $27.3 billion Corbett proposed in March, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre.
On Monday, leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities gave a joint spending plan to Corbett to address some of the changes he requested in a previous proposal. They planned to meet with the governor Tuesday morning, after a Monday evening meeting was postponed.
“Hopefully in the next day or two we’ll have some sort of final agreement,” said Corman, who added that the size of cuts in social and human service programs was probably the biggest unresolved matter between the sides.
Corman declined to give many details about the latest plan. In general, leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature have been meeting behind closed doors to consider using surplus tax revenue to ease the impact of proposed spending cuts in aid for state-supported universities, public schools and hospital care for the poor.
Corbett, who spoke Monday morning at a public event in Lancaster, Pa., also declined to discuss details of negotiations.
The state faces a projected multibillion-dollar budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, largely because of the disappearing federal stimulus money that temporarily helped buttress the state’s recession-wracked tax collections.
In keeping with demands by Corbett, the proposal under discussion would not increase taxes and would keep spending within the bottom line of Corbett’s proposal, which represented about 3 percent less than this year’s budget.
Corbett opposes raising taxes and proposed $2.6 billion in spending cuts to balance the budget. However, Democrats and some Republicans argue that, thanks to better-than-expected revenue collections in recent months, the state can spend more to ease the proposed cuts, something Corbett has said he also opposes.
The state reported a $540 million surplus in tax collections through the end of May, the 11th month of the fiscal year.
In the meantime, public school districts, particularly the state’s poorest, are preparing to lay off staff, close school buildings, raise property taxes and eliminate programs like full-day kindergarten to absorb approximately $1 billion, or more than 10 percent, in proposed school-aid cuts.
On Monday, more than 40 parents, students and teachers from the William Penn School District in Delaware County demonstrated on the Capitol steps. The district, one of the state’s poorest, is expecting a 10 percent shortfall.
Property taxes are already among the highest in the state in William Penn, which is in the inner ring suburbs of Philadelphia, and a proposal for $6 million in budget cuts will mean several dozen layoffs of school staff, including teachers and guidance counselors, and the elimination of programs that include tutoring for struggling students and after-school activities.
“We have to meet tonight for another $3 million (in cuts) and we don’t know where it’s coming from,” said school board president Charlotte Hummel.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House approved a budget bill that would restore about $600 million of the more than $1.6 billion Corbett proposed cutting for public schools and state-supported universities.
That plan did not use any of the surplus and instead would cut about $470 million from the Department of Public Welfare, eliciting fresh concerns from advocates for counties, hospitals, the poor and neglected.
Some of those cuts would have to be realized in savings through the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse. However, the Corbett administration has questioned whether that level of savings is realistic and has asked lawmakers to erase part of them, Corman said.
“That’s probably sort of the biggest piece out there that needs to be resolved,” Corman said.
Legislative officials say they can spend a portion of the surplus to ease spending cuts but keep the budget below $27.3 billion by shifting more than $300 million in health-related programs out of the state’s main bank account, called the general fund.
In his March proposal, Corbett sought to move those programs into the general fund. Those programs, paid for by money from a legal settlement with tobacco companies, historically have been kept separate.
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