Budget ball in Senate's court; rhetoric endures
The overriding debate in this year's state budget battle is about restorative spending.
The big question facing state lawmakers is how far to go to restore state aid to basic education, higher education and county-run human services and other programs and offset successive years of spending cuts since the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008 led to the Great Recession.
The resulting tide of red ink as state tax revenues took a hit dramatically reshaped the state budget. Many programs that were staples of the budget for decades no longer exist and major agencies like the Department of Community and Economic Development operate with shrunken budgets. The cuts have taken place under the administrations of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
The infusion of one-time federal stimulus money in 2009-2011 to buttress the state budget in key areas like education and medical assistance and its subsequent end is a key part of the debate over the fiscal 2013-14 budget.
Corbett's first budgets contained cuts to basic education, higher education and other programs that reflected the loss of stimulus money and continuing problems with state tax revenues, but led to massive dislocations at the local level with the layoffs of school teachers and curtailing of academic and human services programs.
The $28.3 billion state budget bill approved by the Republican-controlled House last week on a party-line vote provides an additional $100 million for basic education, keeps funding level for county-run human services programs and higher education and provides $7.2 million in restorative funding for several programs that combat specific diseases like diabetes, epilepsy and Tourette Syndrome.
The House Democratic minority unsuccessfully proposed a three-year plan to restore cuts in basic education, higher education and human services. The caucus proposed a $333 million boost for basic education, $40 million increase to the 14 state-owned universities and community colleges and nearly $28 million for human service programs as first year "down payments" to full restoration of cuts made since Corbett took office.
Democrats have laid blame for the education cuts squarely at Corbett's feet, while Republicans say the Democrats are blatantly ignoring the transitory nature of the stimulus aid.
The back and forth led one GOP lawmaker to make this point.
"Each side has its narrative and their point of view will not change anytime soon," said Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-99, Ephrata.
Now the budget ball is in the Senate's court.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)