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Pennsylvania lawmakers go down to the wire on state budget

HARRISBURG - With only hours to spare before the start of a new fiscal year, legislators were frantically working into the night Saturday to ensure the state's $27.65 billion budget is signed into law on time.

HARRISBURG - With only hours to spare before the start of a new fiscal year, legislators were frantically working into the night Saturday to ensure the state's $27.65 billion budget is signed into law on time.

Though the Republican-controlled House and Senate have each given final approval to the budget deal negotiated last month with Gov. Corbett, legislators worked beyond 10 p.m. to pass related bills necessary to claim an on-time budget.

Slowing things down: a stubborn disagreement between Republicans in the two chambers on several education measures, including one to increase the state's role in regulating charter schools. Legislative leaders met through dinner to work out a solution, but it appeared unlikely late Saturday that they would resolve the dispute before the budget deadline, after which they will break for the summer.

If the budget is signed on time, it would mark the second year that Corbett has done so, a goal Democratic predecessor Ed Rendell never met in his eight-year tenure in the Capitol.

And, much as he did last year, the governor seems to be getting pieces of his legislative wish list through the legislature.

"We are optimistic that the budget will be passed by midnight," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said.

The negotiated budget contains no new taxes - in keeping with Corbett's campaign pledge - and it keeps a tight lid on spending: about 1.5 percent more than this year's plan.

Public schools, for the most part, are flat-funded, as are the four state-related universities, including Temple and Lincoln, and the 14 schools in the State System of Higher Education.

The budget does contain nearly $300 million in tax cuts for businesses, and the agreement negotiated by Corbett and GOP legislative leaders also calls for a tax credit to entice Shell Chemical L.P. to build a petrochemical refinery in Western Pennsylvania.

"I think it's a pretty historic night in Pennsylvania," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). "It's a budget that is very balanced, and very fair."

Democrats disagree.

A month's delay

The budget calls for slicing funding for an array of human-services programs for the mentally ill, the homeless, and people fighting alcohol and drug addictions, leading many Democrats to criticize it as placing the priorities of big business over those of the needy.

It also would eliminate a cash-assistance program that helps nearly 70,000 people, including the temporarily disabled, victims of domestic abuse, and recovering addicts.

Originally, they would have lost the benefits starting Sunday, but the Corbett administration has agreed to delay the program's elimination by a month, until Aug. 1, to ensure recipients are properly notified.

"This budget only serves to illustrate how the governor has forsaken disadvantaged Pennsylvanians, instead favoring tax breaks for energy companies and big businesses," said Sen. LeAnna Washington (D., Philadelphia), once a welfare recipient herself.

'My heart breaks'

"I was able to lift myself out of hard times thanks to the very programs that were cut, and my heart breaks for those who will be left behind by this administration's disregard for those who need government the most," she said.

Beyond the main $27.65 billion budget deal, Corbett had pushed for several education measures.

One of those bills, involving charter schools, caused the budget logjam Friday and Saturday.

The governor had wanted legislation to create a state commission to authorize new charter schools, taking that power from local school boards. He had worked out a compromise with the legislature last week, but it fell apart.

On Saturday, the two chambers passed dueling proposals, each containing provisions that no one had any information about before they were brought up for a public vote. Both would give the state more say in overseeing charter schools but leave local school boards in charge of authorizing them.

The two sides negotiated hard, but as the day progressed, the measure increasingly appeared doomed.

One Corbett priority that appeared likely: expanding from $75 million to $100 million the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide scholarship aid to low- to middle-income students, and a plan to create a new pot of money under the EITC umbrella that would target scholarship aid to pupils in the worst-performing schools.

Other education-related bills that await Corbett's signature involve establishing a process to identify and deal with distressed schools, and changing the way public school teachers are evaluated, from a system now based entirely on classroom observation to one that would be based in part on student scores.