HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's budget headed closer to final passage Tuesday as the legislature yielded to Gov. Corbett's wishes and backed off a scheduled vote on a natural-gas drilling tax.
If the budget stays on track and Corbett signs it by Thursday's deadline - and every sign points in that direction - he will make history in two ways. It will be the first budget completed on time in nine years, and the first budget decrease since the economy sank after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to legislative staff.
One after another, key budget-related bills moved out of the House and Senate on Tuesday, putting in place the elements of a $27.15 billion budget that is 3 percent smaller than the one approved for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
By nightfall the GOP-controlled Senate was passing the general fund bill on a 30-20 party-line vote over Democrats' objections that it preserved tax breaks for corporations while cutting school aid and decimating vital state-funded programs for the poor, children, and the environment.
The House, where Republicans also rule, could vote as early as Wednesday.
"Hold the line on taxes, hold the line on spending - that's what we're doing," said Corbett, speaking at an afternoon bill signing in the Capitol Rotunda.
But at the same event, the Republican governor reiterated his vow to veto any legislation to tax Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling.
Corbett also said he still wanted legislators to deliver a bill that deals with the likely impact of state school-aid cuts on Pennsylvania's taxpayers. Those planned cuts have already triggered layoffs and other austerity measures by school districts that rely on property taxes and are facing budget crises of their own. The bill Corbett wants would mandate that any property-tax increases over the inflation rate get voter approval.
Finally, Corbett reiterated his pledge not to act on any natural-gas legislation until he can review recommendations by his Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in a report due next month.
"I am looking for that report, including what the impact is," he said after signing the "Fair Share Act," which will limit a defendant's payout obligations in liability lawsuits. As for any legislation that arrives before the shale commission's report and calls for a tax or fee on gas drillers, Corbett said, "I have sent the message: If something gets to my desk, it will be vetoed."
The House's GOP leaders seemed to get his message. Three hours later they abruptly pulled the plug on a debate they had scheduled on a bill to enact an impact fee on Marcellus Shale drilling.
The bill would have set a per-well fee on natural-gas drilling of $50,000 in the first year, to be distributed to affected municipalities and conservation districts.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House GOP caucus, said the chamber would hold hearings on the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling after Corbett's task force reports its findings.
Asked why the chamber decided to drop its last-minute push to tackle the shale question before the legislature's summer break, Miskin said: "Reason prevailed."
In the Senate, Democrats assailed the GOP budget for cutting too deeply into education funding - even after portions of Corbett's proposed cuts had been restored - as well as food and health-care programs for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.
"The budget proposed today is the wrong direction for our state - for our youth, for those looking for jobs, for those needing health care - this budget fails them," said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Hughes and others implored their GOP colleagues to use the projected surplus in recent state revenue - now estimated at nearly $700 million - to restore funding for the popular adultBasic program that offers health insurance to the working poor.
On Monday, Democrats in both chambers held up funding for the state-related universities - Pennsylvania State, Lincoln, and Temple Universities and the University of Pittsburgh - saying they had not been made aware of budget details until the eleventh hour.
But by early Tuesday evening, that issue, too, was resolved, with most House and Senate Democrats joining Republicans to approve bills to cut the colleges' funding 19 percent.
Bills for funding the state-related schools require a two-thirds vote in the legislature, thus affording the minority party at least some momentary bargaining power. But Democratic leaders said they pulled down their legislative blockade on the college funds after determining they had had adequate time to consider budget details.
The 14-state owned universities - including West Chester - received an 18 percent budget cut.
Although the figures for reductions in college aid were much lower than the 50 percent cut proposed by Corbett in March, college officials said it still would not stop tuition increases.
"But we are very committed, and have been from the beginning, to not putting an excessive burden on the backs of our students," said Penn State's president, Graham Spanier. "We expect to have a tuition increase that is what you might see in a normal year, not a substantial increase of the sort that you're going to see at universities around the country. Ours will definitely be on the low end."
Spanier would not provide figures. He also said he was concerned that the state reduction could become cyclical, putting the school in the same situation next year.