Dems blast House-passed budget
$34 billion measure cuts cash assistance program, won’t raise minimum wage rate
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives passed the main bill in a just-unveiled $34 billion compromise budget plan on Tuesday, despite hard criticism by rank-and-file Democrats that included a floor fight over whether they could criticize the package for lacking a minimum wage increase.
Democrats also bitterly protested the bill’s defunding of a Depression-era cash assistance program for the poor, a Republican demand that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also opposes in a budget package that he otherwise supports.
Still, Democratic leaders voted for the bill, even as they said they would continue to fight for an increase in the minimum wage and to keep the cash assistance program, called “general assistance.”
“At a time when the stock market has never been higher, corporate profits are soaring and yet we’re cutting general assistance,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery. “How do we make that point? How do we explain that to people?”
After four hours of debate, the bill passed, 140-62, with a handful of Republicans joining most Democrats in opposing it.
Senate approval of the bill is still required as the fiscal year ticks down and the new 2019-20 fiscal year starts Monday.
The Republican-controlled Legislature was in the midst of a flurry of votes on bills this week as they rush to approve hundreds of pages of budget-related legislation and depart Harrisburg for the summer.
The budget package capitalizes on strong tax collections to boost aid to public schools and universities and stuff cash into reserve.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the package does not rely on any increases in fees or taxes and represents the “largest investment in education” in decades.
Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Fulton, told colleagues during floor debate the bill meets the state’s needs “in an exceptional way.”
“We are working on behalf of those hard-working families that continue to send checks to this commonwealth,” Topper said during floor debate. “When we talk about revenue, we understand we’re not holding a hoagie sale on the Capitol steps.”
For the first hour, Democrats repeatedly criticized Republican resistance to increase the minimum wage, something Wolf has advocated for all five years he has been in office.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, warned Democrats about bringing it up, saying, “I’m going to strike any other reference to minimum wage” from the official transcript of the floor proceedings.
The $34 billion compromise package is similar to the $34.1 billion plan Wolf floated in February.
The package authorizes almost $2 billion in additional spending through the state’s main operations account, or 6% more than the spending lawmakers authorized last year, counting cost overruns in the current fiscal year.
Lawmakers react to budget
Area state representatives issued statements Tuesday praising House passage of the 2019-20 state budget bill. The $34 billion spending plan doesn’t include a tax increase.
The sentiments include:
“The budget we passed today supplies increased funding to important areas of government all while holding the line on taxes. All school districts in the 79th Legislative District would see a boost in funding, and this budget makes key investments in career and technical education. Specifically, the CTE line item would be increased by $7 million, and $3 million is earmarked for equipment grants to ensure our future workforce has the needed tools so they can learn their trades.” — Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona
“As a fiscally conservative Democrat, I supported this no-tax- increase budget that gets back to the basics by putting more money into education. It’s not just about spending more; it’s about spending smarter, so the dollars actually get into the classroom. Every child in every school deserves to feel safe and this budget increases funding for school safety.”
— Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown
“I know my constituents are pleased that this budget does not raise taxes or include new fees. The spending increase of 1.8% is less than the rate of inflation multiplied by population growth. This is very important for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. … The budget addresses one of my main legislative priorities of helping those with substance abuse addiction and their families. It not only increases funding for drug and alcohol programs, but also sets aside more money for providing first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.” — Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg