Pennsylvania House GOP Plan Doubles Down On Spending

Apr 4, 2017

House Republicans on Monday unveiled a $31.5 billion no-new-taxes budget proposal for Pennsylvania government that would add politically touchy cutbacks to a relatively austere plan floated by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf as the state grapples with a huge deficit.

The plan left many questions unanswered, including how it would fill a projected $3 billion deficit without a tax increase, and how it would find such significant savings in two of the costliest services in state government, prisons and health care for the poor.

The House Republican majority put the plan on a fast track to the Senate, introducing it without negotiating it with Wolf and positioning it for a floor vote on Tuesday.

After allowing for $234 million to patch a current-year shortfall, the House GOP plan would actually cut overall spending next year by a little under 1 percent.

"We balance the budget by cutting through a lot of the bureaucratic spending in Harrisburg, while focusing on the funding that we want to get out into the local communities that take care of the core functions of government," House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, told reporters in a brief question-and-answer session in the Capitol late Monday afternoon.

The plan is for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Democrats quickly signaled their opposition in a party-line committee vote Monday evening. Wolf aired concerns about some of the plan's spending cuts, including for child care subsidies, and said he believed that corporations should pay their "fair share" while state government tightens its belt.

Wolf in February floated a $32.3 billion spending plan, based on a $1 billion tax package, including a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production, and a range of savings measures, including closing a prison in Pittsburgh, cutting unfilled employee positions and reducing dispensing fees on drug purchases.

The House GOP's plan would require nearly $800 million in new money to balance, and Reed suggested that the bulk of it could come from steps to legalize the expansion of casino-style gambling and the private-sector sale of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania.

New spending in the House GOP plan would include $150 million more for public schools, special education and early childhood education, below Wolf's $200 million proposed increase. It also would maintain Wolf's proposal to add more than $150 million to fund caregiver help and day services for another 2,000 people with intellectual disabilities or autism.

No additional debt or borrowing would be required to balance it, including Wolf's proposal to use the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex to secure a $200 million upfront payment, Reed said.

Still, Reed acknowledged that a lot remains up in the air, including the question of whether to impose a fee on 2.5 million residents whose municipalities receive full-time coverage from the Pennsylvania State Police at a cost of $600 million.

"We understand it's a negotiation, a beginning, not an end," Reed said.

Currently, highway construction dollars is propping up the state police budget, perhaps unconstitutionally.

Across-the-board cuts would not spare the Department of Environmental Protection, which has been warned by the federal government that it is not adequately staffed to enforce safe drinking water, air quality and mining pollution standards.

Reed said he expected $100 million in savings in the state's Medicaid program simply by allowing enrollees to pick a coverage plan once a year, rather than every month.

The proposal funds child care subsidies for low-income working parents at $50 million below Wolf's request, but Reed said savings could be had — about 10 percent — by shifting the program administration to counties.

It would maintain a number of cuts proposed by Wolf, including $50 million from school transportation aid.