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Pa. budget agreement details withheld

September 19, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Although Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell announced that legislative leaders have agreed on a 2009-10 budget, Franklin County's lawmakers remain in the dark about what's included in the spending plan.

"I don't know a thing yet," state Sen. Richard Alloway said Saturday at noon, 16 hours after Rendell's announcement.

"We have not seen the line items, we have not seen the total spend number and we have not seen the reoccurring new revenue," state Rep. Rob Kauffman said.

The House Republican caucus does not support the $27.9 billion proposal. State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, said he hasn't seen the budget, but he doesn't like the spending level and use of one-time funds.

"Our leadership doesn't even have the details yet," Rock said, saying his vote probably will be "no."

Rendell said House Republicans should be pleased the state will be spending $400 million less in 2009-10 than in 2008-09. If federal stimulus money is deducted, the state is, in total, spending $2 billion less, he said.

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The problem is last year's spending continued at the planned rate despite underperforming revenue, leaving Pennsylvania $3 billion in the red, Rock said.

"We're almost ensured we'll have a $3 billion deficit or more" with a similar spending level in 2009-10, he said. "We should be spending a lot less to narrow the gap."

"It doesn't matter what the spending number was last year," said Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland. "The revenue that came in was $3 billion less than that."

Kauffman said negotiators might have agreed in principle to a budget, but not hammered out the individual line-item amounts yet. That already happened once in September when a potential budget was announced.

"I hope they didn't just come out and say this to put people off for another week, that they have the line-item for line-item done," he said.

Rendell, a Democrat, told reporters he would not release specifics of the budget until they're received by rank-and-file members. He confirmed it closely mirrors an existing proposal that does not include broad-based tax increases.

Instead, the plan relied on revenue from tobacco tax increases, new table games at casinos and expanded business taxes. Reserve funds like the Rainy Day account and Mcare (Medical negligence compensation/doctor retention) could be depleted.

"This gives us nothing to fall back on," Rock said.

"There's nothing to draw off of next year if we find ourselves in the same situation," Kauffman said.

More than 80 days have passed since Pennsylvania lawmakers missed their budget deadline. Their failure to pass a budget means aid checks for human service agencies and schools have been delayed.

Speakers at Friday's press conference estimated seven to 10 days could pass before the budget is brought to a vote.

"It is my hope that as quickly as possible, we can get a signed budget and get money to flow," Rendell said, repeatedly touting higher allocations for education.

Kauffman said the state's 500 school districts received funding increases in all of the latest budget proposals. They were given their stimulus money and increases beyond that, he said.

"Really, the school districts, they're making out any way you shake it," he said.

"This budget is a clear win for education," said Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York, saying an earlier Senate plan would have provided only modest increases.

Although a lot of members are frustrated with the budget being negotiated behind closed doors, the governor and caucus leaders wouldn't announce an agreement if they hadn't received a commitment for enough votes to pass it, Kauffman said.

"I believe that an overwhelming majority of legislators want to see a budget passed as soon as possible to get funds flowing to the organizations and citizens who rely on state-funded services," Alloway said.

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