Pa. state Rep. Mike Sturla debates the Republican's 2011/12 budget bill on the House Floor, which imposes historic and inequitable cuts to education, slashes health and welfare programs and fails to adequately fund the state's environmental
June 30, 2011

Pa. state Rep. Mike Sturla debates the Republican's 2011/12 budget bill on the House Floor, which imposes historic and inequitable cuts to education, slashes health and welfare programs and fails to adequately fund the state's environmental agency so they can supervise fracking in the Marcellus Shale.

The GOP-dominated PA state house approved their new budget last night, and thanks to a lot of tricky last-minute bills, amendments and little public input, it looks like a right wing Christmas list -- with Gov. Tom "I'm Owned by The Gas Industry" Corbett as Santa Claus. About the only bright spot in this mess is that a last-minute push for school vouchers failed -- but Corbett says he'll bring it back in the next session. The other highlight is that the budget displaces many, many costs to the local municipalities under the guise of "preventing" tax increases:

Corbett got most of what he wanted - deep spending cuts, no new taxes on natural gas or anything else - but only after his administration pushed through a last-minute Senate measure to shift control of billions in welfare funding from the legislature to his administration.

His welfare secretary said budget needs necessitated the change. "We have a savings target to meet, and we can't wait months and months to do it," Gary Alexander told The Inquirer Wednesday night.

But the measure set off alarms among advocates for the poor, who portrayed it as a power grab by the executive branch that would shred the safety net for hundreds of thousands of people - most of them women and children - who depend on government assistance.

Richard Weishaupt, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said past administrations had been given temporary authority over a narrow range of welfare services, but nothing so sweeping as what the Corbett administration is seeking.

"It is unprecedented that a state agency is given this kind of discretion without any checks and balances," Weishaupt said.

[...] The amendment to the welfare code would let the welfare department change benefit rates, including reducing cash assistance payments, and increase co-payments for child care and health care.

The measure passed by a 35-15 vote, with five Democrats joining the Republican majority, and is expected to receive final approval Thursday. The bill then goes to the House for consideration and could take effect as soon as Friday, the first day of the new fiscal year.

I'd like to point out that two Philadelphia Republicans, Reps. Dennis O’Brien and John Taylor voted against the spending plan. (Taylor is my local rep, and I called up and screamed at his aide yesterday. I hope it helped.)

But wait, there's more:

The 2011-12 budget contains no new taxes or Marcellus Shale levies and spends 4 percent less than the current budget, channels $5.3 billion in state instruction subsidies to school districts, provides $2 million through a new funding source for the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton , cuts public welfare spending by $400 million from what the governor proposed in March and leaves an anticipated $700 million state tax revenue surplus mostly untouched.

The House rejected a parliamentary move to add $34.5 million to the state Department of Environmental Protection's budget and cut a similar amount from the Commonwealth Financing Authority, an economic development arm.

And just as WI Gov. Scott Walker's budget did, this includes an increase in funding for state police. (Have to have at least one group of state employees that's not mad at him, you know!)

Also included in the budget: A law that, in most circumstances, would require voter approval for school budgets that grow larger than the inflation rate, which of course will result in underfunding. (Even if state legislators weren't known for slapping unfunded or underfunded mandates on school districts.) Oh, and $1.9 million in funding for a new "independent" fiscal office sponsored by Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, that’s intended to serve as a political counterweight to the governor’s Budget Office. You know, just in case voters get any funny ideas and vote in another Democratic governor.

Here's what one Scranton columnist wrote:

While claiming to hold the line on taxes, Sheriff Corbett imposed a massive tax hike on every Pennsylvanian who owns property and works for a living. By cutting a combined $810 million in K-12 and early childhood education funding, Sheriff Corbett ensured that school districts will raise property taxes to stay afloat.

Not to worry, Sheriff Corbett assured. State law requires school districts to put to a referendum any tax increase beyond the rate of inflation. True, but there are many exceptions to the rule and even if they are removed, school districts would be asking taxpayers to vote for tax increases. They are more likely to approve bans on television, booze and chocolate.

On to the gas drillers, who along with corporations in general and our esteemed Legislature are the big winners in Sheriff Corbett's budget.

The plan does not address the "Delaware loophole," so named because it allows more than 70 percent of corporations doing business in Pennsylvania to evade state taxes. Instead, it lowers corporate taxes and contains no severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas boom. You may recall the Legislature's vow to enact a severance tax by Oct. 1 of LAST YEAR. They "balanced" the 2010-11 budget with that empty promise. Try that with your mortgage payment.

In other words, this budget is as "fiscally responsible" as an all-night party with hookers and blow.

And as the whipped cream on top, Corbett also just signed the laughably-named Fair Share Act, which limits which limits legal liability for defendants in product liability or alleged malpractice lawsuits. (Because it's so awful that those poor, powerless corporations are picked on by those horrible plaintiffs.)

If you'd like to show your displeasure, please contact your state legislator. If you're close to Philadelphia, there will be an action this Friday:

Friday, July 1st, 12–1pm
Philadelphia Office of Governor Corbett
200 S. Broad St.
Philadelphia, PA

And continue to watch this space. I'm sure there will be more Pennsylvania horror stories to report.

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