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Politics & Government

Democrats Slam State Budget

The Pennsylvania Senate passed a $29.1 billion state budget late Monday to the fanfare of Republicans and jeers of Democrats. Gov. Tom Corbett has yet to sign the budget, citing a lack of a pension overhaul.

Sen. Matt Smith (D-Allegheny/Washington) is one of many Democrats displeased with the bill.

“It’s not a sustainable budget,” Smith said. “There are about $2.5 billion dollars in fiscally irresponsible inflated revenue projections, delayed payments, raiding of other funds and other gimmicks that will have an immediate impact on the commonwealth’s bond rating.”

Plus, Smith said this budget will make it harder to craft future budgets. The budget increases funding for special education, Ready to Learn Block Grants and early childhood programs; includes funding to train new state police cadet classes; and overall the budget increases spending by $723 million, or 2.5 percent, to $29.1 billion over the current year's approved budget.

Counting another $220 million that it would add to the books of the 2013-14 fiscal year that ended Monday, the entire package is a $943 million increase, or about 3.3 percent. But, Smith reiterated his view that the budget relies too heavily on one-time “gimmicks.”

“For instance, raiding the tobacco settlement fund, raiding the other fund transfers like the volunteer company loan fund, the machinery and equipment loan fund,” said Smith.

The budget transfers $100 million from the Machinery and Equipment Loan Fund and $100 million from the Small Business First Fund; relies on more than $700 million from legal settlement money paid by tobacco companies, revenue from oil and gas drilling on state lands and lottery sales.

Smith said he would have preferred to see Medicaid expansion and a severance tax imposed on natural gas development to bolster the budget. Echoing the call for a severance tax is the environmental advocacy group Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, or PennFuture.

“Pennsylvania stands as the only major Marcellus Shale-producing gas state that does not have one,” said PennFuture President and CEO Cindy Adams Dunn. “It would make an infinite amount of sense to have a severance tax in Pennsylvania. This is something the industry spends a lot of money fighting.”

Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) called the budget remarkably shallow and insincere, and Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) said the plan “creates more hardship and pain for the citizens of Pennsylvania.  The $29.1 billion budget does not solve any problems and is built on faulty revenue assumptions, budget tricks and accounting ploys that are not sustainable in the long run.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans say they are pleased with the bill, and that no taxes were raised to arrive at a balanced budget. Sen. Randy Vulakovich said the plan is resourceful and uses taxpayers dollars wisely.

“We allocate money to support, maintain and enhance key services and programs while recognizing the economic reality and climate in the commonwealth,” he said in a statement.