The Pennsylvania Senate yesterday approved legislation that would whack more than $1 billion off Gov. Rendell's proposed budget, reject tax increases, and impose cuts across a wide swath of education, health care, and social services programs.
The $27.3 billion plan - which passed the Republican-controlled chamber on a 30-20 party-line vote - is nearly 6 percent less than that proposed by Rendell in February and would use $2.7 billion in federal stimulus funds to help compensate for some of the cuts. The bill now goes to the Democrat-controlled state House, where it faces near-certain defeat. The deadline for passing the budget is July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Leaders in the Senate said during the four-hour debate that in the face of a projected $3 billion budget deficit this year, the reductions were necessary to balance next year's budget and prevent tax increases.
"Circumstances call for a budget like this," said Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "This budget is a reflection of what we have to spend."
Democrats countered that the GOP spending plan contains draconian cuts that would jeopardize federal funds for health care and education, and harm hospitals, schools, the elderly, children, and the working poor.
Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said the plan reneged on the "moral obligation" of government to help those in need, and predicted higher local property taxes would be inevitable to cover gaps in education funding.
With Rendell, a Democrat, seeking limited tax increases, the Republicans' line-in-the-sand, no-tax spending plan adds to the usually tense budget negotiations. Some Republicans who voted for the bill called it imperfect and a step in the budget process, while one Democrat, Sen. Jim Ferlo of Allegheny County, criticized it as a "pandering political placebo" designed to appeal to the GOP conservative base.
The Senate shot down Rendell's plan to tap the state's $753 million Rainy Day Fund and rejected Rendell's proposal to impose a 10-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and new levies on smokeless tobacco and natural-gas reserves.
Rendell - who has reduced by $250 million his $28.9 billion spending proposal presented in February - has argued the taxes would help stave off the kinds of cuts the Senate Republicans proposed. He said he would take a look at each line item and see which cuts might be "fair" to consider in budget negotiations.