AP: Budget deal near with higher sales tax, more school funding

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A potential deal to break Pennsylvania’s budget stalemate in its fifth month includes a state sales tax increase, expanded school property tax cuts and hundreds of millions of new dollars for public schools, top state lawmakers said Monday.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said the new money for public schools amounted to a record increase, a major priority of his, even if the first-term Democrat had made major concessions in other areas, such as losing his fight to impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production.

It also appeared that Wolf would get at least a portion of the multibillion-dollar state tax increase that he had sought to help correct a long-term deficit and transform a school funding system that harbors huge disparities between rich and poor districts.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s huge Republican majorities made headway on their goal of imposing major pension changes for future state and school employees, while plans to privatize some or all of the state-controlled wine and liquor system remained up in the air.

Many other crucial details were unresolved Monday and negotiators said a final agreement would not be in place until all of its elements get settled.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “We’re trying to put a framework together that will move us forward to get to a final agreement.”

Still, disagreements remained about the extent of settled details. For instance, Wolf’s office said it had secured an agreement for $750 million in new dollars over two years for public schools, special education and pre-kindergarten programs. Republican lawmakers disputed some elements of that assertion.

The parties did agree, however, that public schools would get $350 million in new money for instruction and operations, a 6 percent increase to about $6.1 billion. Wolf had originally sought $400 million.

Ironing out those details and passing legislation could require several more weeks.
“There’s a lot of second-, third- and fourth-tier decisions that need to be made,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

Under the preliminary deal, state spending would rise to $30.7 billion, up about 6 percent from last year’s approved budget. It would be boosted by about $500 million in slot-machine gambling revenue that is currently passed along to homeowners as school property tax cuts. That money would be diverted into a restricted account to pay for public school employee pension obligations.
The loss of that money for school property tax cuts would be replaced by about $2 billion expected from a state sales tax increase to 7.25 percent, up from the current 6 percent. The rate would rise to 8.25 percent in Allegheny County, where it is currently 7 percent, and to 9.25 percent in Philadelphia, where it is currently 8 percent.

Amid staunch Republican opposition, a deal would not include a new tax on Marcellus Shale production that Wolf had sought. Tax increases on cigarettes and on banks were still under discussion.

There was no agreement on how new money for schools and property tax cuts would be distributed to each district, an issue that the governor’s office has said is of “critical importance.” Meanwhile, negotiators were discussing measures to further limit the ability of school boards to raise taxes as part of the package of new money.

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