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Inching toward budget deal? Pa. Senate OKs $31.5B spending plan

HARRISBURG - The Republican-controlled legislature appears determined to beat the clock and send Gov. Wolf a budget before the start of the new fiscal year.

HARRISBURG - The Republican-controlled legislature appears determined to beat the clock and send Gov. Wolf a budget before the start of the new fiscal year.

Less than 24 hours after the House passed a $31.5 billion spending plan, the Senate on Wednesday tweaked the proposal and swiftly passed it in a 47-3 floor vote. The measure won the vote of every Democrat - a strong signal that it has tacit support from the Democratic governor.

"We've learned from our past, not to repeat it but to move forward," said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), referring to last year's nine-month impasse. "We learned from the fact that this is a divided government, learned from the fact that incremental gains are gains nonetheless."

Getting a spending plan to the governor before the Friday start of the fiscal year is a big step toward achieving an on-time budget, but does not guarantee one. The House and Senate have yet to finalize how to pay for the plan, and there's no assurance that Wolf will sign off.

The Senate version kept the underpinnings of the House plan - namely, more money for public schools, including $200 million for K-12 classroom education - but added slightly less than $40 million for higher education. The House had not included any new aid for state system universities, community colleges, and the four state-related universities.

The changes have to be approved by the House before going to Wolf for his signature. Both houses are controlled by Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said Wednesday that he did not know if the House was on board. "But it's a very similar budget," Corman told reporters. "I don't know why they wouldn't be for it."

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said leaders in his chamber were reviewing the Senate's proposal.

In a statement, Wolf, who had criticized the House's plan as being unbalanced, said, "I look forward to continuing to engage with the legislature to discuss a sustainable revenue package."

Given last year's breakdown in budget negotiations over that issue - how to pay for the budget - Wolf will likely require an agreement on revenue-generating proposals before signing.

House Republican leaders have said they would support the plan with about $1 billion in new revenue from four sources: gambling expansion, estimated to generate $267 million; breaking the state's monopoly on the sale of wine, estimated to raise an additional $150 million; raising taxes on tobacco products, for just shy of $500 million; and instituting a tax-amnesty program, bringing in an extra $129 million.

A number of senators and administration officials have said privately that they believe some of those estimates are overly optimistic. They have also expressed misgivings about portions of the gambling measure, which would for the first time permit licensed casinos to offer slots-style and table games on websites and mobile apps, as well as operate slots at airports and offtrack betting parlors.

Corman has stated his concerns about raising taxes on smokers. On Wednesday, he and his Senate colleagues were noncommittal when asked whether they could support any of the revenue-generating items the House has proposed. They also did not say what other ideas they had for raising new dollars.

Corman said budget negotiators hope to quickly begin discussions on how to pay for the roughly 5 percent increase over the current year's $30 billion budget. "One step at a time," he said.

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