FILE - PA Stan Saylor 6-24-2019

Pennsylvania House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor addresses a committee meeting June 24, 2019.

Pennsylvania’s state budget took its first step this week toward what’s expected to be a relatively smooth passage when it was introduced and advanced by the House Appropriations Committee – but not without some harsh words from Democratic members upset by the omission of some of their priorities.

Still, compared to a series of fraught budget cycles featuring missed deadlines and the governor withholding his signature – a pattern of discord that only ended last year – a few complaints and negative votes in this year’s first hearing on the legislation barely registers.

Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-Red Lion, introduced this year’s House budget bill by noting that once again it features no new taxes, increases in education spending and a sizable contribution to the state’s rainy day fund.

“One of the goals of our caucus has been to protect our taxpayers here in Pennsylvania from unnecessary taxes, and in good economic times, it's important that we prepare for the future by saving so that we don't have to raise taxes tomorrow,” Saylor said. “This budget transfers 100 percent of the ’18-’19 general fund balance to the rainy day fund. So we are expecting a minimum of $250 million and close to $300 million will be deposited in the rainy day fund when this budget ends on June 30, which is the first time in decades this has been done.”

According to Saylor, the budget proposal adds another $160 million for basic education funding, continuing the trend of reversing cuts made during the aftermath of the Great Recession. It also has $50 million for special education, $25 million for pre-kindergarten and another $25 million for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. That last amount is well shy of the $100 million EITC boost that would have taken place if House Bill 800 hadn’t been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Colleges and universities that rely on state aid in Pennsylvania can expect a 2 percent boost in the state contribution, and there will be a $19.2 million increase in agriculture-related spending, which Saylor said was a 12.7 percent hike.

“I suspect that if each of us as members of the General Assembly was to … draft their own budget, there would be about 253 different spending plans,” Saylor said. “This product is the result of hard work by Democrats, Republicans and this governor, House and Senate, to pull together a compromise that will benefit the people in Pennsylvania.”

Minority Appropriations Chairman Matthew Bradford, D-Norristown, was largely complimentary of Saylor and the budget, with the exception of lamenting the absence of any accounting for a minimum wage increase. The governor’s budget proposal had contemplated a reduction in spending on social services related to workers getting a pay increase and therefore being less reliant on the state to make ends meet.

Where Bradford still supported the budget bill despite the lack of a minimum wage hike, for some other Democrats this was a deal-breaker.

“If by raising [the minimum to] $12 an hour, nearly 17,000 would leave Medicaid next year, and another 51,000 the following year, how much would the state have saved?” asked Rep. Patty Kim, D-Steelton. “We have missed a huge opportunity to do the right thing. Hard working Pennsylvanians aren't worth $7.25 [an hour].”

Other Democratic lawmakers took issue with a lack of funds for the General Assistance program, which Republican leaders have been trying to repeal, and for environmental causes.

Rep. George Dunbar, R-Jeannette, argued that the minimum wage was too substantive an issue to be a mere aspect of the state budget. He also warned against any efforts to use the money ticketed for the rainy day fund for any other purpose.

“With our increased revenues, we don't know if it's an anomaly, or if it's a trend,” Dunbar said. “And [if it was] an anomaly, we have to still be careful in our spending. And although the wish list is great, and we would like to do a whole lot more, we have accomplished a great deal in this budget.”

The budget bill is expected to be considered by the full House of Representatives on Tuesday. If it passes, as it is expected to, it will then move to the Senate.

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.