Corbett proposes budget plan

Gov. Tom Corbett made his fourth budget address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly on Tuesday.

Forty percent, or about $12 billion of Corbett’s balanced 2014-15 budget proposal, is public education, for which he’s proposed funding increases.

“Every child in this state should be ready to learn, grow and succeed,” he said in his address telecast on PCN.

Children who would be especially impacted by his proposal include preschool-age students boosted by a $10 million increase in funding from last year.

And after six years of going without a funding increase, special needs students would see an increase of $20 million from last year. Corbett’s plan also builds up a K-12 grant from $100 million last year to $341 million.

“It’s smoke and mirrors,” Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said.

There’s no new money in the budget, he said, after a Democratic caucus on Corbett’s address Tuesday.

“He’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “What we are supposed to be putting into pension for school employees, he proposes to push back to pay for increases to education,” Haluska said as an example.

Corbett’s proposed increases to education largely depend on the Legislature passing his pension reform plan that would artificially reduce the state’s contribution to its pension systems for school and government employees, Haluska said.

During his address, Corbett urged legislators to act on the state’s $50 billion underfunded pension liability: “Enact pension reform before the end of this session,” he said. “Last year, I proposed a solution. … Other legislators have put forth their own plans,” he said. “We must fix this.”

About $100 million of his proposed 2014-15 education funding depends on Legislature passing his employee pension reform plan, said Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever.

Corbett’s pension reform proposal extends debt in the long term by not making pension payments on debt, Keever said.

“That’s what created the problem in the first place,” he said.

The PSEA represents labor, policy and professional interests of 182,000 teachers and other school staff statewide. Keever and Haluska said Corbett’s proposed 2014-15 budget prioritizes corporate tax breaks over students.

“We are disappointed. The governor’s budget short-changes schools again,” Keever said. “Even if the amount he proposes is to be approved by legislature, it still leaves students with $500 million less than before Gov. Corbett took office.”

Since Corbett was sworn in as governor in 2011, Pennsylvania public schools have experienced difficult times.

From 2010 to the 2013-14 school year, Blair County schools have seen their state funding slashed by $7.39 million. Corbett has said he has been unfairly blamed for the drop in education funding since he came into office.

He’s said he’s increased education funding each year since he’s been in office and the pinch schools have felt is because the federal stimulus money that schools received when Ed Rendell was governor ran out.

As a result of state budgets formed during Corbett’s term, course offerings have been reduced. Teaching staff has been reduced significantly, and class sizes have grown in schools statewide.

Corbett’s proposed funding increase to K-12 students comes in the form of the “Ready to Learn Block Grant,” formerly called the Accountability block grant. But instead of having the ability to restore programs that were cut in past years, Keever said Corbett’s 2014-15 budget plan requires schools to spend the increased K-12 funding according to a short list of options subject to state approval.

“Local teachers know where money would do the most good,” he said. “The funding should be put into basic education subsidy.”

As legislators begin examining Corbett’s proposed budget to negotiate changes to it, Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, is on guard for rural schools. Upon first glance at Corbett’s proposal, he spotted an instance where a program benefitting rural schools was eliminated, presumably to fund the increases to other education line items.

Fleck has been through eight budgets proposed by governors. It’s the same each year, he said.

Like every budget Fleck can remember, Corbett’s budget proposes to eliminate a statewide $864,000 Mobile Science and Math program that began years ago as a partnership between Juniata College and school districts throughout Fleck’s legislative district.

The program especially benefits rural schools, he said.

It entails a college professor transporting state-of-the-art, university science equipment to public K-12 schools that cannot afford to purchase the equipment for students.

As he works to put that program back into the budget, Fleck questions how Corbett’s proposed increases will be divided.

“Rural schools are so dependent on state funding,” he said.