Corbett unveils state budget
HARRISBURG - Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a state budget this morning that creates a new state block grant for school districts, leases state forest and park land for gas drilling, delays the full impact of a public pension cost spike and keeps state income and sales taxes at current rates while continuing the phaseout of a business tax.
The $29.4 billion General Fund budget that goes to state lawmakers for approval by a June 30 deadline increases spending by $925 million, or 3.3 percent, from the current year. It calls for the phaseout of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax by 2016. The Republican governor is relying on various strategies to bring in new revenue to offset increased costs for public pensions and medical assistance that threaten to leave the budget out of balance.
One of these is to bring in $75 million in new revenue from new leasing of state park and forest land for gas drilling. Budget Secretary Charles Zogby described this as involving drilling below surface taking place on parcels adjacent to existing well pads. Mr. Corbett offered a new twist to the contentious debate over state education funding with a proposal to create a "Ready to Learn" block grant funded at $341 million.
Districts could use the block grant for programs to make students proficient at third grade level in math and science, provide STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs and to train teachers. The decade-old Accountability Block Grant that districts have used to pay for full-day kindergarten and early learning programs would be folded into the new block grant.
Another $1 million would go to high-performing school districts that mentor struggling school districts on best academic practices.
"We want to take what they are doing and replicate it across the state," said Mr. Zogby.
The governor wants to address a spike in public pension costs by temporarily lowering the minimum amount that state government and school districts would pay through the employer contribution next year for public pensions for employees.
The resulting savings of $130 million for school districts and $170 million for state government could be redirected for other purposes. Beyond that, Mr. Corbett called on lawmakers to enact legislation this spring to reduce pension costs for new state government and school district employees.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane would receive level funding under the governor's proposal for her programs to deploy a mobile street crime unit to fight neighborhood crime as she has done in Hazleton, deploy drug strike task forces and run a special unit to intercept child predators.
The budget includes $13.7 million to fund the training of 350 new state troopers, a priority of State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan who needs to fill vacancies as veteran troopers retire. Mr. Corbett proposes mostly flat funding for programs that support fiscally distressed cities.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committee are scheduled to start hearings Monday on the budget.
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