Under the (Capitol) Dome

The wheeling and dealing continues this weekend as House and Senate leadership try to get on the same page with each other and the governor’s office in setting up the new state budget and tackling other issues such as liquor sales expansion and transportation funding.

Pension reform may be the odd issue out when the dust settles from this busy weekend in Harrisburg, but it’s an issue that can be picked up again when lawmakers return from the summer recess in September. As the weekend dragged on, it was becoming evident that the House and Senate were tying the alcohol and transportation issues together in a give and take deal to bring both to successful votes.

The latest liquor plan would not be as extensive as the outline Governor Tom Corbett delivered to lawmakers back in February, but it would expand sales of wine and spirits to venues beyond the traditional state store, including restaurants, beer distributors, convenience stores and supermarkets.

Still, Senators seemed poised to only send the liquor plan to the state House if House members in return send a transportation bill back their way. As the budget deadline countdown nears the 24-hour mark, it’s still unclear if there will be anything but a state budget coming out of all the weekend trade-offs and posturing.

Speaking of the budget, a spending plan just over $28.3 billion for Fiscal Year 2014 is taking shape, and it could include $122 million more for public education. That’s more than originally proposed by the Governor or the state House of Representatives, which passed its budget plan earlier this month.

The budget deadline is midnight Sunday night.


Radio PA Roundtable – June 28, 2013

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, the budget deadline looms! Lawmakers have until Sunday night to wrap up their spending plan and decide whether or not to address the major issues of transportation funding, alcohol privatization and pension reform. Also, amidst all the budget week hype, two state lawmakers knocked heads over the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Radio PA Roundtable – June 14, 2013

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, the state House of Representatives passed its version of the state budget. You’ll hear segments of the final debate; also, a major twist this week in the Philadelphia building collapse story. Governor Tom Corbett stops by and we bring a very special surprise celebrity guest in segment 3.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Capitol, State Capitol, Dome

House Budget Vote Could Come Today

Democrats and Republicans postured and battled Monday in the state House of Representatives, but in the end the Democrats fell short to the GOP majority on every critical vote.

The Democrats were pushing their own budget plan, which they said would increase spending for education and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that the Corbett administration has balked at due to what the governor calls a lack of information from the feds. Democrats argued that at least three independent studies show that if Pennsylvania were to opt in to Medicaid expansion, there would be health and economic benefits for the Commonwealth. Republicans argued that it was still too soon to consider the expansion, which would take effect in 2014.

Monday’s defeat of Democratic amendments clears the way for a possible vote on the Republican budget as early as today. Governor Tom Corbett reiterated Monday that he not only wants a budget by June 30th, but also a transportation funding plan, pension reform and liquor privatization.


Capitol Building

Revenue Collections Rise as Budget Talks Heat Up

Just in time for the stretch run of the 2013 state budget season, revenue collections for May came in $35 million ahead of projections, bringing the fiscal-year-to-date total to 102 million above the forecasts.

Pennsylvania collected $2 billion last month, with the increase being largely driven by corporate tax collections, which accounted for 30 million of the surplus. Personal Income Tax collection was down, but sales tax revenues jumped after several sluggish months, coming in $1.3 million over estimates. Sales taxes remain more than $300 million behind for the year, however.

The figures were released the same day state House Republicans cleared their budget plan through the House Appropriations Committee in a party-line vote. Their $28.3 billion spending plan is slightly less than the $28.4 billion proposed by Governor Tom Corbett and does not include Medicaid expansion, an option for Pennsylvania under the Affordable Care Act, but one that Governor Corbett has staunchly opposed. House Democrats spoke out against the plan prior to the committee vote, setting the stage for the floor debate which could begin next week.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats say they have their own budget plan, totaling $28.5 billion. Minority Leader Jay Costa criticized the administration’s resistance to Medicaid expansion while talking about the Senate Democratic caucus budget priorities Monday.

Lawmakers and the governor have until June 30th if they are to meet the budget deadline for a 3rd consecutive year. Several other issues loom over the budget talks, including pension reform, transportation funding and liquor privatization. The governor wants lawmakers to pass all four major initiatives before taking their summer break.


State House Republicans Introduce Budget Bill

State house Republican leaders have rolled out their budget plan, calling for less spending than the Governor requested.  The house budget would spend about 100 million dollars less than the proposal presented by Governor Tom Corbett in February. The total amount is still about   600 million dollars more in spending than this fiscal year.

Appropriations Committee Chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) says the 28.3 billion dollar general fund plan represents the priorities of the house, but is by no means a final budget. With just over a month before the start of the new fiscal year, he says it’s their intention to have a budget in place on time.

The plan calls for a 100 million dollar increase for basic education, which includes 10 billion dollars for total pre-K education.  Representative Adolph called it the highest amount of state funding ever.

The plan also includes greater support for certain health programs, county conservation districts and the state open records office.

It does not include savings from a proposed pension reform plan. Representative Adolph says it would cover pension obligations without making reforms, using balances in the school employee’s retirement appropriations for the last two fiscal years.

It also does not include any proceeds from proposed liquor store privatization or the proposed transportation funding plan. It also does not include any funds related to an expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Governor Corbett has been concerned about the costs of such an expansion and unwilling to make a final decision yet, pending more information from the federal government.

House Democrats called the budget plan  an improvement over the Governor’s plan, but expressed concern over human service and special education funding levels.

Radio PA Roundtable 02.22.13

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman and Matt Paul bring you the latest from state legislative budget hearings, which included questioning on topics ranging from state pensions to guns. And, as budget season kicks into high gear, what’s the latest on the pension crisis?

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 02.07.13

This week, on a special edition of Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman & Matt Paul break down key portions of Governor Tom Corbett’s budget address, including plans for education, pension reform and road & bridge funding.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Governor Tom Corbett Proposes 2.4% Spending Increase for 2013-2014

Governor Tom Corbett has presented his general fund budget proposal for the 2013-2014 fiscal year that begins on July 1st. He calls it a balanced budget with no tax increases. Corbett’s plan calls for the state to spend $678.76 million more than it has in the current budget, an increase of 2.4%. In his budget address, the governor also laid out his plans for pension reform and transportation infrastructure.

Highlights of the budget include the first increase in basic education funding in two years. The 1.7% increase amounts to about $90 million. Additionally, the governor is proposing a block grant program to be funded by the state’s divestiture in the liquor business. That funding, which would total $1 billion over four years, could be earmarked for school safety, K-3 readiness and enhancing access to STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), among other programs. The governor says there would be an initial $200 million available for the grants by the 2014-2015 school year.

Governor Corbett’s proposal also eliminates the Capital Stock & Franchise Tax on January 1, 2014, and calls for a reduction of the Corporate Net Income tax to 6.99% over ten years from 2015-2025. That CNI tax is currently 9.99%.

The budget plan also includes $14.7 million for three new State Police cadet classes.

On pension reform, the governor is proposing big changes for the two public pension funds that have been declared in a state of crisis. The State Employees Retirement System (SERS) and the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) are both drastically underfunded and threaten to gobble up massive pieces of future state budgets. Among the changes proposed by Governor Corbett, new employees would be automatically enrolled in a 401(a) retirement plan where they will be required to contribute at least 6.25% of their salary (7.5% for PSERS). The governor says current employees would not see any changes to benefits already accrued and current retirees would see no changes at all in the benefits they are collecting. SERS is currently only 65.3% funded while PSERS is 69.1% funded.

On transportation funding, the governor is proposing removing a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax. Currently, distributors pay that tax based on the artificial cap of $1.25 per gallon, wholesale. Gas prices, of course, are well beyond that threshold, and the governor wants to “uncap” that price over a 5-year phase-in. Distributors would pay more in taxes under the plan, but to offset any potential attempts to pass along that increase to consumers, the governor also wants to lower the state tax on gasoline by a penny per gallon in 2013-14 and another cent in 2014-15. The current state gasoline tax is 12 cents per gallon.

Next up, the overall spending plan will be the subject of dozens of legislative budget hearings in the coming weeks. Then legislative leaders will carve out a final budget that will be sent to the floors of the House and Senate, probably in late June.


Adjutant General Assures Senate Committee Budget Cuts Won’t Hurt Pennsylvania’s Veteran’s Homes

The state’s Adjutant General told the Senate Appropriations Committee reductions in funding for veterans’ homes won’t hurt residents of those facilities.  Major General Wesley Craig says the 6.7% cut in funding to veterans’ homes can be absorbed.

Major General Craig said they’ve been able to come up with savings this year by reducing overtime and other using best management practices. He said looking at the budget environment; he felt the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs needed to deliver the same or better service with the same or less state dollars.

He says they identified 6 million in savings, then asked to keep a third of it, which will be used to address the risk of Alzheimers or dementia patients wandering away.  He says they’ll be using technology to better secure the homes.

Major General Craig says Pennsylvania’s veteran’s homes have a high customer service rating, better than commercial homes, and they want to keep it that way.

He also told the committee they’ve just been able to open the Pennsylvania Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit 501c3. He says the Governor’s budget has given them, as part of a 1.7 million dollar increase in Veteran’s Services Outreach, a new restricted line item account.  He says they will take one million dollars as seed money for the foundation. He says the money will help provide grants to foundations and local charities that do veterans outreach.