Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rendell expected to sign $27.2 billion budget today

Rendell expected to sign $27.2 billion budget today

State officials are ready to get out paychecks to 43,000 employees.

By John L. Micek and Christina Gostomski

Call Harrisburg Bureau

July 17, 2007


State lawmakers began bringing down the curtain on this year's budget drama with a flurry of votes that lasted until late Monday night, but more work lies ahead of them today before they can go on their summer break.

Moments before 11 p.m., the House voted 106-97 to approve a $27.2 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Lawmakers must still finish voting today on a ban on public smoking, a massive transportation funding package and a bill boosting state support for public education.

Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to sign the budget today, spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Senate approval of the budget bill came shortly after 10 a.m. with a 46-2 vote. The plan hikes general fund spending 3.2 percent -- 4.4 percent including mass transit subsidies being diverted into a special fund.

The House's budget vote was still expected to come in time for the state treasury to deliver paychecks to 43,000 employees scheduled to be paid Friday.

Treasurer Robin Wiessmann sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, saying the department was expediting payroll processing and could issue the paychecks if the budget were passed anytime Monday.

Despite carrying the endorsement of the Senate's Republican majority, two freshmen GOP lawmakers, Sens. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, and John Eichelberger, R-Blair, broke ranks to vote against it.

Folmer and Eichelberger, who ran for and won office last fall with promises of fiscal conservatism, said they were casting ''no'' ballots because the budget exceeds spending limits they'd pledged to uphold.

''I do think our governor has an insatiable appetite for spending,'' Eichelberger said in a brief floor speech, charging that Rendell had ''jeopardized our future'' with his spending habits.

All three Lehigh Valley area senators -- Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton; Pat Browne, R-Lehigh; and Rob Wonderling, R-Montgomery -- voted in favor of the budget.

The budget vote, which was to bring to a close one of the most contentious budget seasons in recent years, came 16 days into the new fiscal year and one week after a deadlock between Democrat Rendell and legislative Republicans resulted in the temporary furloughing of nearly 24,000 state employees.

But if there was lingering acrimony between the two sides, none of it showed Monday, when legislative leaders of both parties heaped praise on each other for their willingness to compromise in a year in which the state did not raise taxes and had the cushion of a $650 million budget surplus.

''Budget agreements are the result of compromise, and in that context, this budget is a remarkably good result,'' said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.

Thanks to unprecedented turnover in last year's elections, Pileggi was one of a half-dozen leaders this budget season who found themselves around the negotiating table for the first time. This week, lawmakers acknowledged that their rookie status might have slowed passage of the spending plan and a host of related issues.

''People send us up here and say, 'Why can't you guys work together?''' asked Sen. Gibson Armstrong, R-Lancaster, a 22-year legislative veteran who was nonetheless serving his first term as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. ''I think this vote today will show that we can.''

The Senate was expected to act on a massive, $750 million transportation package for roads, bridges and mass transit agencies. The plan calls for putting tolls on Interstate 80 at current Turnpike rates and borrows $5 billion in bonds to provide an average of $946 million a year in new funding for the next decade. Tolls on the mainline Turnpike would rise by 25 percent in 2009, a year earlier than planned, with increases of 3 percent a year after that.

The plan also requires county and municipal governments to increase their share of funding for mass transit agencies from an average of 13 percent to 15 percent.

State funding for the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority, the Lehigh Valley's mass transit agency, would rise by $3 million from the current $6.7 million. State money for Monroe County Mass Transit would rise by $1 million from the current $1.2 million. The House is expected to take up the transit plan today.

The Senate passed a $10.5 billion education budget, including nearly $5 million in basic education funding and just over $1 billion in special education funding.

The legislation also increases funding for Pre K Counts by $75 million, full-day kindergarten by $20 million and a high school laptop computer program by $70 million.

The State System of Higher Education, which includes East Stroudsburg University and Kutztown University, would receive $504 million in funding, and Penn State University would get $334 million.

The education funding is ''one of the things that makes me overall pleased with the budget,'' said Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh.

Also on Monday:

The House passed a bill authorizing the Gaming Control Board to spend money from the state gaming fund to pay its expenses for 2007-08 and pay the state police, the attorney general and the Department of Revenue for their services related to gaming. The state gaming fund receives its money from taxes and fees on slots parlors.

With a 31-17 vote, the Senate passed a bill authorizing spending from the Pennsylvania Gaming and Economic Development Fund, which is funded by a tax on casino revenues. The legislation would include funding for the Philadelphia Convention Center expansion, Pittsburgh International Airport expansion and Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena.



Source: www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/state/all-a3_5pabud.5949361jul17,0,2449077.story


No comments: