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Politics & Government

Corbett Signs $27.7 Billion PA Budget

After days of long meetings and last-minute bills flying, Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $27.7 billion no-new-taxes budget just before midnight Saturday that was the centerpiece of several long-term victories for his legislative agenda.

There were defeats for the governor too, though his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature tried to squeeze out as many victories for Corbett as they could in the waning moments of the fiscal year. Minority Democrats staunchly opposed elements of the budget as well.

Corbett won approval from the Legislature for two different tax credits: one designed to seal the deal for the construction of a massive new petrochemical refinery and another designed to advance his agenda to open up taxpayer-financed alternatives to public schools.

He also cemented an overhaul of how public school teachers' classroom performance will be evaluated, and he eased his former chief of staff and longtime friend, Bill Ward, into his dream job of being a judge.

Still, Corbett failed in a last-ditch attempt to win support for provisions to smooth the road to opening up more privately run, taxpayer-funded charter schools.

Signing the budget before midnight let Corbett keep his pledge for the second year in a row to sign an on-time budget.

"Hopefully we're developing a habit," he said after a signing ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

The budget plan for the 2012-13 fiscal year that began Sunday authorizes a spending increase of about 1.5 percent, largely for debt, pensions and health care for the poor, as well as to help fill a shortfall in the almost-finished fiscal year.

Meanwhile, it is projected to accumulate around $350 million to $400 million into reserves while cutting businesses' taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from services for the poor, homeless, troubled and disabled.

Aid for public schools and universities will remain flat — a handful of public schools nearing financial collapse will see a little extra money — after absorbing more than $1 billion in cuts in the current fiscal year.

It was those cuts in aid and the memory of deep education cuts in the past 12 months that most rankled Democrats at a time when Corbett pushed for tax breaks for a subsidiary of Netherlands-based oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Lycoming, suggested that Shell's CEO, Peter Voser, and his company should sacrifice in the same way that Corbett has asked people in Pennsylvania to do by cutting aid for the poor, social services and schools.

"You should do what all of us are doing in Pennsylvania. You should learn to live with less," Mirabito said. "Learn to live on $15.2 million a year without getting any tax breaks from us in Pennsylvania."

A proposed $50 million tax credit approved Saturday night is designed to help low-income students transfer out of the state's worst schools — a condition that was an integral part of a conventional school voucher proposal that stalled in the Legislature despite Corbett's support.

The credit is being incorporated in the existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, whose 2012-13 appropriation also would be increased to $100 million from this year's $75 million.

That 11-year-old program rewards businesses that contribute money, property or services to nonprofit groups that provide scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families who transfer to private schools or public schools outside their home districts.

Much of Saturday was devoted to trying to iron out disagreements between the House and Senate over charter schools.

In the end, the chambers traded competing education bills without the key provisions Corbett sought: putting the decision to create a charter school in the hands of an appointed state board, rather than locally elected school boards, and stripping the ability of parents and teachers to prevent the conversion of a public school building into a charter school.

Both bills stalled, possibly until fall, despite having some similar provisions.

Supporters of each bill said they were designed to strengthen state oversight of charter schools, overhaul the way the state distributes special education aid and seek recommendations to address longstanding public school board complaints over the amount of taxpayer money charter schools receive.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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