$27.6 billion state budget bill awaits senate floor vote
HARRISBURG - A $27.6 billion state budget bill that restores some $500 million of proposed state spending cuts awaits a Senate floor vote today after having cleared a key committee by a unanimous bipartisan vote.
The measure approved Tuesday by the Appropriations Committee seeks to restore cuts mainly in higher education, basic education and county-run human services programs that Gov. Tom Corbett proposed earlier this year. But action on the final budget won't be completed until next month after the House offers its own version and the governor weighs in on the negotiated legislation.
The bill would restore more than $200 million of state funding to Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University - the state-related universities - and the 14 state-owned universities.
The presidents of the state-related universities and chancellor of the State System of Higher Education have made a commitment in return to keep any hikes in student tuition rates for the next academic year below the rate of inflation, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Jake Corman, R-34, Bellefonte.
Reflecting increased state tax revenues in recent months due to an improving economy, the bill provides $50 million for the Accountability Block Grants used by school districts for kindergarten and pre-school programs. The accountability grants were zeroed out in Corbett's proposal. Also, state aid is restored for the Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs.
By restoring $84 million for county human services programs, a proposed $168 million, or 20 percent cut, in state aid would be halved to 10 percent. The Senate bill doesn't address Corbett's plan to combine seven of these programs in a single block grant. The seven programs include community mental health and mental disability services, the human services development fund, homeless assistance, child welfare grants, the Behavioral Health Services Initiative and Act 152 drug and alcohol treatment.
The bill would add $10 million for payments to operators of group homes for individuals with mental disabilities, thereby drawing an additional $10 million in federal funds, said panel member Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-13, Lancaster.
It adds $30 million for Medical Assistance Long Term Care Services affecting residents of nursing homes. Aldona Smith, a 94-year-old Wilkes-Barre resident, spoke at a Capitol rally Tuesday sponsored by the Pennsylvania Health Care Association against proposed cuts in that area. She volunteers at the Golden Living Center-Summit in Wilkes-Barre. "Medicaid pays for the staff and we cannot cut staff," she said in her remarks. "The nurses already are so busy."
"We have a vastly improved budget bill," said Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, who voted for it in committee.
"Any budget bill that moves away from the Draconian cuts proposed by the (Corbett) administration represents a step in the right direction for the people of Pennsylvania," said Sen. John Yudichak, D-14, Nanticocke who also voted for it.
Blake, Yudichak and other senators hope improved revenue collections in May will enable additional state aid restorations to a variety of programs in the final budget. An amendment by Democratic senators to block proposed cuts to state cash assistance grants to some 60,000 individuals who don't qualify for federal welfare payments was rejected by the committee.
Blake said he would like to see further restorations of state aid to local governments and economic development programs in the final budget.
"It's (Senate budget bill) a starting point," said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley. The governor's $27.1 billion budget proposal in February was based on available revenue, and officials hope that May revenues will be above estimate, he added. But Harley cautioned that fiscal prudence is necessary and noted that state revenue collections were falling below estimates last fall.
House Republican leaders have said their members are interested in blocking cuts to higher education, basic education and county mental health and disability services.
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