HARRISBURG - Even as he negotiates behind closed doors with legislative leaders on the budget, Gov. Corbett said Monday that he would veto any fiscal plan that totaled more than $27.3 billion, or that imposed a tax or impact fee on natural gas extraction.
The governor said he favored a fiscal plan that did not exceed the $27.3 billion proposal he unveiled in March more than he would one that came in by the June 30 deadline.
Corbett's plan included steep cuts in funding for public schools and state-related universities, some of which the legislature is trying to restore.
"If this budget comes in at $27.35 billion, we're going to be here on July 1, or 2, or 3," Corbett said Monday morning in a speech to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners in Lancaster. "I can stay here as long as it takes to pass a budget at $27.3 billion. That's what the state has to spend."
The governor also said he would likely veto any budget bill that included a natural gas-drilling severance tax or impact fees, arguing that his Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission should be given a chance to complete its study of the issue and craft a report before any action is taken. That report is due in July, after the budget deadline.
"I think it's more important to come up with a good policy rather than jamming one through under budget-deadline pressures," Corbett said.
That has the potential to cause friction. Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) has said that he does not believe the budget can be passed without addressing the Marcellus question.
"We haven't changed our position on that at all," said Drew Crompton, Scarnati's legal counsel and chief of staff.
Scarnati has proposed an "impact fee," rather than a tax, on gas drillers. The money would not go into the general fund, but would be primarily targeted to help towns and counties where drilling occurs.
With Senate budget negotiations still under way and numerous pledges by the Republican majority to pass a blueprint by the June 30 deadline, pressure is mounting for agreement on a spending plan that addresses the state's $4 billion revenue shortfall.
Several key issues are being discussed, including how much money to restore to education as well as how much of the more-than-anticipated revenue being generated this year, which is being called a surplus, to tap for next year's budget.
Corbett, in his budget proposal, would ax more than $1 billion for basic education and cut by more than half funding for state-supported universities. The legislature is trying to restore a portion of that money.
Another key negotiating item is how much to cut from the Department of Public Welfare's budget. House Republicans have proposed chopping about $470 million, some of it by cracking down on abuse and fraud. But administration officials have been wary of relying on money from such a crackdown.
One thing was made clear in Lancaster: Corbett said he would not hesitate to exercise his veto power to ensure the budget bill did not exceed the figure set in his proposal.
To that, William Penn School Board President Charlotte Hummel had this to say: Try walking a mile in her shoes, not to mention those of her students and their parents.
She, along with some of those students and parents, boarded a bus to Harrisburg on Monday to protest the proposed cuts in Corbett's budget. So far, those reductions have translated into cutting teachers, librarians, speech therapists, after-school busing, and a number of student activities, Hummel said.
"We've been living close to the bone for years," she said. "There is no chance the board is going to pass a tax increase - we can't afford it. . . . This is all we have left."