New Castle News

June 4, 2013

State Democrats pitch budget with $212 million for schools

John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — Senate Democrats Monday pitched a budget plan suggesting that if the Legislature does the exact opposite of almost everything proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, the state could afford to spend $212 million on public schools.

The Democrats’ plan would depend on savings from expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats also suggest the state “modernize” the state liquor monopoly rather than privatize it. Finally, a planned move to eliminate a corporate tax would be delayed.

The Democrats’ $28.4 billion spending plan is roughly $100 million more than the one put forth by House Republicans and approved by the House appropriations committee Monday morning. The House Republican plan would add $10 million to the $90 million in new basic education funding suggested by Corbett.

“Our focus is on education and jobs,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County.

Wozniak said that, because the Republicans have control of the Senate and the House and the governor’s mansion, it is unclear how much of their plan will make it into the final budget.

“(Republicans) could steamroll us,” he said. But, through the budget negotiation process, the minority party is typically in a position to try to fight to get some of their priorities included in the final spending plan.

Christine Conkright, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office, said two of the major priorities laid out by Corbett — pension reform and liquor privatization — were intended to provide additional money for public schools. Pension reform would help schools manage the cost of their employer contributions. Corbett’s version of privatization intended to direct $1 billion in educational block grants to schools.

Conkright added that the Corbett administration disputes the notion that Medicaid expansion would save the state money, which is a key part of the Democrats’ spending plan. And even if Medicaid expansion was a money-saver, “We’ve seen a lack of willingness from Washington to allow Pennsylvania the flexibility to institute common sense reforms to the Medicaid program that would make it more sustainable,” Conkright said.

Recognizing the political realities, mainly, the Democrats’ budget plan is intended to demonstrate where they think the state should focus their priorities, Wozniak said.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said the Democrats are calling for a multi-year push to boost basic education funding.

The additional funding for education includes $39 million in new funding for distressed schools. Of that, $11 million would be split between the Duquesne School District, the Harrisburg School District, the Chester-Upland School District and the York City School District.

Philadelphia schools would get $5 million through the distressed school fund. Twenty-eight other school districts would get a share of the remaining $23 million.

Under the plan, two school districts in Cambria County — Forest Hills, $206,152; and Greater Johnstown, $602,767 — and two in Mercer County — Farrell, $166,563; and Sharon City, $368,854 — would get additional aid as distressed schools.

The Democrats’ plan estimates that by expanding Medicaid, the state would save $154 million in welfare department spending. Those dollars could be directed elsewhere, for things such as school funding. The Democrat plan also depends on $360 million that the state would continue to collect by postponing a plan to phase out the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax.

Wozniak said that while he supports the delay, he believes the state needs to get rid of the tax eventually.