House approves final components of state budget

HARRISBURG, July 13 -- House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody said today the General Assembly completed work on a bipartisan 2016-17 budget for Pennsylvania that improves funding for schools, helps Pennsylvanians in need and fights the state's opioid addiction crisis.

The spending plan is supported by a revenue package passed in the House and Senate today that includes revenue-generating options such as liquor modernization, expanded gaming, taxes on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and new tax rules that treat books, movies and music downloaded online the same as those purchased in stores. The package does not increase any broad-based tax.

"Democrats and Republicans worked together to complete this bipartisan budget," Dermody said. "House Democrats wanted to do better in several areas but we had to reach a compromise. I’m proud that we fought for higher investments in schools and in public health matters like heroin and opioid addiction. We were able to get those into this budget."

House Democratic Whip Mike Hanna said the budget makes a substantial investment in education at all levels, including a $200 million increase for K-through-12 classrooms, another $30 million for early childhood education and a $20 million increase for special education.

"In addition to the devastating $1 billion in school funding cuts under Tom Corbett in 2011, the state has been chronically underfunding its share of education costs for years," Hanna said. "This budget represents a significant step in our effort to provide all kids in the state access to a quality education and to lower the financial burden on homeowners by reducing the pressure of ever-rising property taxes," he said.

Hanna pointed out that the state's new basic education funding formula will help to gradually reduce school funding disparities over time.

"However, without providing adequate funding under that formula, it could take some school districts decades to catch up. Kids shouldn't have to wait years for a quality education based on where they live," Hanna said.

Democratic Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Markosek said the budget also represents an important step forward for Pennsylvanians in need and those battling devastating heroin and opioid addictions.

"Republicans and Democrats stood together to pledge funding to fight addiction and provide more people with access to treatment," Markosek said. "And because we worked in a bipartisan way throughout the process to get this budget completed, funding for schools, county agencies and nonprofits will flow on schedule. They won't suffer through another costly and frustrating impasse."

Markosek also said the revenues raised to pay for the budget will help to preserve the state's credit rating. Credit rating agencies downgraded Pennsylvania's bond status several times over concerns about unbalanced budgets and the state's growing structural deficit. Pennsylvania taxpayers pay around half a percentage point more in borrowing costs than taxpayers in neighboring balanced-budget states because of those downgrades. "We need to put a stop to these back-door tax increases," he said.

"This is certainly not a perfect budget,” Dermody said. “We need to do more for families, elderly residents, workers and schoolchildren. We need to ensure Pennsylvania has the resources it needs in the future to protect the environment, maintain public health and safety, and offer a hand up to people who are struggling to get on their feet.

"But considering the significant deficit and fiscal challenges Pennsylvania faces, I believe this was the best budget we could achieve under very difficult circumstances. It’s time to move Pennsylvania forward."