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Pa. legislators return with budget on their minds

HARRISBURG - After more than three weeks off, Pennsylvania legislators return to the Capitol on Monday for one of the most hectic times of the year: budget season.

Lawmakers return to
Harrisburg after having most of April off to face work on a spending plan.
Lawmakers return to Harrisburg after having most of April off to face work on a spending plan.Read more

HARRISBURG - After more than three weeks off, Pennsylvania legislators return to the Capitol on Monday for one of the most hectic times of the year: budget season.

The House and Senate, on break since the first week of April for Easter and the primary election, will spend the next two months in negotiations over how to best tackle Gov. Corbett's proposed $27.1 billion budget, as well as other high-profile bills they hope to get done before the summer.

Adding to the pressure: The legislature's two-year session is coming to a close. Any legislation not signed into law before the end of the year will die. With the fall session bound to be dominated by the general election, legislators will be scurrying to get the most pressing business done now.

The first priority will be enacting an on-time budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, legislative leaders said. And while the House and the Senate, as well as the governor's office, are controlled by Republicans, it will not necessarily be an easy feat: Over the last year, the House and Senate have bickered over spending priorities, as has the Senate with the governor's office.

As proposed, Corbett's second budget continues his push to pare down spending in the costliest state departments, Education and Public Welfare. That would translate into millions of dollars in cuts for state universities, as well as sharply scaled-back programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled.

In the next eight weeks, there is bound to be debate over how much, and where, some of those cuts should be restored, particularly with the news that more revenue than Corbett had initially anticipated is flowing into state coffers.

"The discussion is really about how much more [money] we will have - and that is subject to interpretation," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

Nonetheless, Pileggi added: "My personal goal is to have the budget done early this year."

In February, Corbett administration officials predicted a year-end revenue shortfall of about $720 million, and built their proposed spending plan for 2012-13 around that number.

But better-than-expected collections since then could result in a smaller year-end shortfall, and that, in theory, could free money to help offset some of the proposed cuts in the budget.

Next week, legislators will get a financial road map that will help jump-start budget negotiations, as the administration will release revenue collection numbers for April, typically a make-or-break month. Also, the newly created Independent Fiscal Office will release its revenue estimates for the next fiscal year, as well as projections for revenue collections during the remainder of this one.

"I think we still have to, for a sustainable budget, follow the governor's lead in making sure that we have responsible, prioritized spending," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) last week, "but I do think that, overall, you are going to be able to see some more money going back in the budget."

If Turzai and his Republican colleagues in the House have their way, that would mean more money for K-12 education, higher education, and mental health and mental disability programs.

Pileggi, too, said his caucus agrees that any extra money should be used to restore some of the funding in those areas.

Aside from the budget, legislative leaders in both chambers have a wish list of bills on which they want action. In the House, Republicans are pushing a business tax-cut package that would, among other things, close the so-called Delaware loophole to force more companies incorporated in Delaware but with Pennsylvania operations to pay income taxes here.

Turzai said last week that he also intended to push hard for a vote on a bill to privatize the state liquor stores. He said House members had been working with the administration, which supports privatization, to come up with an alternative plan that would appeal to more legislators.

In the Senate, Pileggi said he wanted to advance a bill to deal with the state's unemployment compensation fund, which is about $4 billion in debt to the federal government; enact changes to how charter schools are authorized and monitored for accountability; and reignite momentum for legislation addressing prison overcrowding, recidivism, and the high cost of incarceration. (It has passed the Senate, and is awaiting debate in the House.)

One item that won't see any action over the next eight weeks: Pennsylvania's transportation funding problem. Corbett said this year that the time wasn't right to tackle it, and legislative leaders last week said the issue would not come up until at least the fall.