Democrats fight ‘lean’ budget

Democratic Sen. Larry Farnese, a member of the state Senate’s Appropriation Committee, told the Tribune that Democrats are exploring a number of alternatives that may help the legislature blunt some of the cuts outlined in Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget. — ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

Lawmakers ponder alternatives to Corbett’s plan to cut school funding

 

Statehouse Democrats have already begun weighing alternatives to Gov. Tom Corbett’s $27.1 billion budget proposal, released early last week.

“We will be putting together a list that can be utilized to save dollars — and a list of options that can be used to create investments to save jobs,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Several of his colleagues in the Senate and House echoed Hughes, criticizing the governor for not focusing enough on job creation and additional revenue sources.

“He didn’t include in his budget any new funding,” said state Rep. Ron Waters, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, “which I believe is critical so that we can do better by the citizens of this commonwealth.”

A vocal critic of Corbett during last year’s budget debate, Hughes, along with others, has already made a number of suggestions he said would create jobs, something he said Corbett failed to do in his budget.

Chief among his suggestions was creating a “responsible tax plan” to provide incentives for small businesses, homeowners and working families.

“The number one issue in Pennsylvania is jobs and job creation. Putting Pennsylvanians back to work,” Hughes said. “The governor did absolutely nothing in terms of job creation.”

Corbett’s budget proposal, which did not include any tax increases, did impose cuts in a number of areas. Among them: A 25 percent cut — representing $230 million — from the allocation for state-supported colleges and universities, among them Temple, Lincoln and Cheyney universities. There was also a 4 percent cut to community colleges and a 6 percent cut to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

School districts would see their basic subsidies rise about $45 million to $5.4 billion, but would lose $100 million in state grants that helped fund full-day kindergarten. And, while overall spending for the welfare department remained level, Corbett suggested slashing $319 million from welfare programs by eliminating cash payments for about 60,000 participants in the General Assistance program, which helps people who do not qualify for the federal welfare program.

The governor, in his budget address on Tuesday, characterized his proposal as “lean and demanding.”

Hughes called it “insensitive.”

Other area legislators echoed his sentiments and rattled off several ways the state could raise revenue.

“Closing the Delaware Loophole, that has to be done,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, another Democrat from Philadelphia who also serves on the appropriations committee, referring to a provision in state tax law that allows companies that do business in more than one state to lower or avoid their Pennsylvania tax liability by legally headquartering their business in Delaware. “That’s going to bring in revenue.”

Another suggestion was making sure the state captured sales tax revenue from Internet transactions, he said.

Another option has local lawmakers particularly riled up — a missed opportunity to tax Marcellus shale drillers.

“One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was Marcellus shale,” Farnese said. This week the general assembly agreed to impose a fee on the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus shale, but it was not a tax, rather a fee based on the volume of the gas extracted and then given to the municipalities where drilling occurs.

“That has to be one of the largest errors of this administration,” Farnese said. “To leave that kind of money on the table and not do the same kind of thing that states around the country have done.”

Waters agreed.

“We should tax it at a level similar to other places,” he said, noting that they range from 6 to 7.5 percent.

Corbett’s proposed cuts are misplaced, said Waters.

“He is not investing in what it takes in order to make a person a success in life,” he said, pointing to the education cuts as an example.

The decisions made in this budget cycle and the last will have a long lasting impact on the state, he said.

“We ask our children to go to school, to be law abiding citizens, to do right thing, but we have to do the same thing by them,” Waters said. “The role of government is to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. This is not investing in their health and welfare.”

Last year, in the first budget of his term, Corbett cut $1.1 billion in public education funding, $662 million cuts to higher education and included tax breaks totaling approximately $320 million. Like this year’s proposal, his plan did not include any new taxes.

Despite stiff opposition from Democrats, that budget passed easily through the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

 

To comment, contact staff writer Eric Mayes at 215-893-5742 or emayes@phillytrib.com.

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