WILKES-BARRE — The state Senate on Friday approved the main appropriations bill — a $32.7 billion spending package — and it now heads to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk more than a week early.
The Senate voted 47-2, three days after first details of the no-new-taxes package were unveiled. The bill had passed the House overwhelmingly Wednesday and Wolf said he supports the spending plan after negotiating it with Republican majority leaders.
The package boosts spending through the state’s main operating account by $700 million, or 2 percent, largely for schools, social services, pensions and prisons. However, critics say it masks the true spending increase by sending roughly $900 million in Medicaid costs off-budget.
Hundreds of pages of budget-related bills are pending, including guidelines for a new $60 million off-budget school-safety grant program.
The new fiscal year begins July 1.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, said the proposal reflects a spirited bipartisan effort to implement a state budget with no new tax increases, and a series of smart investments in education, economic development, and environmental protection.
Yudichak said with a growing economy that has boosted state revenues, Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly are making strides to invest in critical education and workforce development policies that will continue to bolster job creation and business investment across Pennsylvania. He said the PA SMART Initiative, focused on STEM-based career and technical education, will unleash the full potential of the Pennsylvania workforce.
“Increased investments in community colleges, like Luzerne County Community College and Lehigh Carbon Community College, will prepare students for a 21st century job market and aid small businesses to build a pipeline of skilled workers that will transform the Pennsylvania economy,” Yudichak said. “New investments in the Department of Environmental Protection will enable the agency to address significant staff shortages in critical environmental stewardship programs, like the water quality program, and improve the agency’s ability to streamline its permitting process to allow for responsible development.”
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said the budget hikes funding for education, human services and school safety and is approved and sent to the governor on time.
“This budget was put together to be sensible in its size and smart in its priorities, and that approach should serve our state well over the next 12 months, plus provide a solid base for the following budget,” Baker said. “Taxpayers, as well as the citizens and institutions dependent on state funding and services, are relieved to finally have a state budget completed on time and done without the acrimony that marred recent years”
Baker said a no-tax-increase budget is always good news for families. She said the relatively low increase in overall spending is consistent with public demands that state government become more fiscally responsible.
“Education at every level is always top priority in state budget-making, and the increases for basic and higher education well reflect that,” Baker said. “In human services, this budget puts extra money toward critical services that improve lives, provide care with dignity, and open up doors. This includes care for seniors, assistance for those with intellectual or physical disabilities, care for children, and visitation services for families impacted by the opioid crisis.”
Meanwhile, the budget does not impose a new severance tax on natural gas production, which Wolf has been pushing for years.
Some other highlights:
• Aid for public school operations and instruction increases by $100 million, or nearly 2 percent, to $6.1 billion.
• Programs to expand high-demand computer and industrial skills training in high schools and colleges get $40 million more, or 62 percent, to $104 million.
• Early childhood education funding increases by $25 million, or 11 percent, to $251 million.
• Special education funding rises by $15 million, or 1 percent, to $1.14 billion.
• The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education gets $15 million more, or 3 percent, to $468 million.
• Money set aside for pensions and Social Security grows about $290 million, or 8 percent, to nearly $4 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.