Post-Gazette: Pennsylvania’s budget moves forward

By Karen Langley / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — Legislative leaders and the governor’s office said Monday that they have tentatively agreed to a framework for an end to the impasse that has delayed the Pennsylvania state budget more than four months.

Leaders from both parties in the House and Senate briefed their members on the proposals under discussion, which Republican leaders said include increases in education funding, a hike in the sales tax and a large increase in relief from local property taxes.

It was clear that disagreement remains. While a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, insisted that Republicans had committed to particular increases in the main K-12 education funding line and funding for special education and pre-K over the next two years, aides to the top Senate Republicans said that was not entirely the case.

“We’re moving, which is obviously a huge step forward for all of us,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “I think we can resolve these other issues in a fairly short period of time, but until they’re resolved, I can’t tell you we’re done because we’re not.”

Mr. Corman said that framework involves an increase from 6 percent to 7.25 percent in the state sales tax, generating $2 billion that would be used to reduce property taxes. Two other tax increases originally proposed by Mr. Wolf — a hike in the personal income tax and the establishment of a severance tax on natural gas drilling — are not part of the discussion, Mr. Corman said.

Reaching a final deal will require negotiators to arrive at a plan for the state’s system of alcohol sales, which Republicans have proposed disbanding, and to finalize a proposal of changes to the pension systems for state and public school workers, he said. They would also need to decide on a way to distribute the property-tax money among school districts and a way to control increases in property taxes at the local level, he said.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said raising the sales tax to 7.25 percent is “part of that discussion,” and that the increase in revenue would be driven out to homesteads and farmsteads. Mr. Reed said House Republicans had many questions but that the briefing went well.

“Our members want to get done by Thanksgiving just like the governor and everybody else,” he said.

Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Mr. Wolf, said Republican leaders had committed to specific increases in education funding: $350 million in the main K-12 education line along with $50 million for special education and $50 million for pre-K this year and then in the year beginning in July 2016 another $200 million for the main K-12 line along with another $50 million for special education and $50 million for pre-K.

“He secured from Republican leaders a historic commitment in education funding,” Mr. Sheridan said. “It would be the largest single increase in education funding in the history of Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Corman said the framework includes $350 million in basic education funding and $50 million in special education, while Mr. Reed said the $350 million figure “certainly is a potential number for this year.”

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