Senate goes back to work on state budget revenue plan

HARRISBURG, Pa. - The State Senate went back to work Monday to see if it could find a solution for the revenue portion of the state budget, 80 days after the spending plan was approved.

The Senate had approved a plan of its own in July that called for more than $500 million in new taxes, but House Republicans balked at that number, approving a plan with no new taxes last week.

"This is a pretty easy choice," said Jeremy Baker of the Commonwealth Foundation, which sides with the Republicans in the House. "We shouldn't be going back into the taxpayer pockets for money. We should be looking into existing dollars that are already in reserve accounts and take a small fraction of that."

Instead, the House plan calls for taking more than $630 million from "special funds," money that would be earmarked for things like public transit, environmental projects and parks.

More than half of that figure comes from the environmental projects alone, according  to Rob Altenburg of PennFuture.

"It has no recurring revenue in it," he said. "What we're getting, even if the money was there and there's a lot of reason to doubt that that money is even available, but even if the money was there, next year, we're in exactly the same position."

The doubts about the money being available were echoed Monday by members of the Senate. Environmental advocates say by now, special funds are already allocated for those environmental projects, and they usually end up in the hands of local interests.

Some examples are "for going green on the environmental stewardship fund, we fund non-profit groups and municipalities to do watershed improvement projects, [and] for the recycling fund, we're funding our counties and our municipalities to do recycling programs," said Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state has already delayed about $1.7 billion in payments to Medicaid providers and school pension fund commitments. What remains to be seen is what any further inaction could cause.

"Our spending continues to go up at exponential rates and the revenues aren't coming in to match that," said Baker. "Maybe when the state budgets they should look at the expected revenue and match spending to that instead of spending more money than is coming in."

Gov. Tom Wolf has stayed out of the limelight on this matter for most of the summer, but issued a statement Monday saying he took part in talks with leadership from the House and Senate over the weekend, and hopes a compromise can be reached that would see a vote on the budget happen before the end of the month.