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Pennsylvania House passes state budget

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday night approved a $27.15 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Friday, setting the stage for Gov. Corbett to sign the document into law before the official deadline.

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday night approved a $27.15 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Friday, setting the stage for Gov. Corbett to sign the document into law before the official deadline.

Corbett got most of what he wanted - deep spending cuts and no new taxes on natural gas or anything else - on a day when his administration pushed through a controversial last-minute Senate measure to shift control of billions in welfare funding from the legislature to his administration.

The Republican governor is about to make history with his first budget: It will be the first in nine years to be completed on time, and the first in two decades to reflect a decrease, roughly 3 percent, from the previous budget.

The 109-92 vote was mostly along party lines, although two Philadelphia Republicans, Reps. Dennis O'Brien and John Taylor, crossed those lines to vote "no" with Democrats. The Senate approved the budget Tuesday.

Corbett's welfare secretary said budget needs necessitated the last-minute change in welfare legislation. "We have a savings target to meet, and we can't wait months and months to do it," Gary Alexander told The Inquirer Wednesday night.

But the measure set off alarms among advocates for the poor, who portrayed it as a power grab by the executive branch that would shred the safety net for hundreds of thousands of people - most of them women and children - who depend on government assistance.

Richard Weishaupt, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said past administrations had been given temporary authority over a narrow range of welfare services, but nothing so sweeping as what the Corbett administration is seeking.

"It is unprecedented that a state agency is given this kind of discretion without any checks and balances," Weishaupt said.

Alexander said that the change was not meant to circumvent public input and that the administration would make certain that the public and those affected by any changes got a chance to weigh in.

"Anything we do will be done in an open fashion, with stakeholder input and with public comment," he said. "We wouldn't do it any other way."

He added: "The executive branch never has blanket authority to make law."

Alexander said that Pennsylvania's rule-making process could be long and drawn out and that the change would simply let his department speed things up, particularly as it tries to make the hundreds of millions in cuts that next year's budget will require.

He said he could not yet say what changes in benefits, if any, the department would make.

"The budget hasn't even passed yet," Alexander said as the House debated the measure Wednesday night. "Until then, we won't be able to make a definitive statement."

The amendment to the welfare code would let the welfare department change benefit rates, including reducing cash assistance payments, and increase co-payments for child care and health care.

The measure passed, 35-15, with five Democrats joining the Republican majority and is expected to receive final approval Thursday. The bill then goes to the House for consideration and could take effect as soon as Friday, the first day of the fiscal year.

The vote came just before the House took up the state budget, with deep cuts to the welfare department as part of the House GOP's effort to restore some education funding.

For the umpteenth time in recent days, minority Democrats warned that the budget would hurt the most vulnerable citizens while letting the natural-gas industry off the hook by not enacting a levy on Marcellus Shale drilling.

"The Republicans are continuing to practice their mantra of 'close your eyes and authorize,' " said Rep. William Kortz (D., Allegheny). "They're ignoring the role education and welfare play in economic development and in taxpayers' everyday lives."

But members of the House's GOP majority said holding the line on taxes would ease the burden on taxpayers and businesses and boost employment by spurring commerce.

"We're sending a signal to taxpayers and workers in the Commonwealth that we are interested in becoming a business-friendly environment," said Rep. Glen Grell (R., Cumberland).

The last-minute welfare change reaches into the complex territory of who decides how much public aid the poorest Pennsylvanians can obtain.

A number of programs run by the welfare department - such as Medicaid for the disabled and Medical Assistance for the poor, much of which goes to health care for low-income children and elderly - are federally controlled, but states have some leeway over cash assistance grants and some health benefits.

For instance, federal law establishes minimum income criteria for various Medicaid-eligible groups, but states can opt to expand the income requirement. Pennsylvania, for one, has expanded eligibility so more people can get Medicaid coverage.

Some medical aid is federally mandated, but states have wiggle room to add optional benefits, such as mental health and prescription drugs.

Notwithstanding Alexander's promise of public input, critics said the bill would allow his department to largely bypass the extended public-comment period on welfare rule changes and would eliminate legislative oversight.

Jonathan Stein, general counsel for Community Legal Services, said the bill would give Alexander "powers that no other welfare secretary in state history has had. He can issue a fiat."

The late amendment offered by the Corbett administration caught the sponsor of the larger welfare bill unawares; she found herself suddenly forced to defend it.

Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), who chairs the Health and Welfare Committee, said she did not like the language giving greater power to the executive branch.

"I'm not overly fond of it; I don't like to give anybody expedited rule-making, but we have to save $600 million," she said.

Vance was referring to the welfare cuts that Corbett and GOP legislative leaders have agreed to, in part to restore a portion of the deep cuts that Corbett had initially proposed in state education aid.

She said the change would expire in a year and would permit public comment. Critics said they saw nothing to that effect in the amendment.

"This is the kicking out the most vulnerable. It makes them invisible, like their ideas and lives don't matter," said Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health and one of the nation's leading experts on hunger.

Meanwhile, eleventh-hour negotiations over a proposal to create student tuition vouchers - a move Corbett has supported - failed when the House and Senate could not reach agreement. But voucher advocates are sure to revive the issue later in the year.