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Lawmakers vote to bank pandemic funds, boost schools funding

June 26, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A state budget that dumps billions in federal coronavirus money into savings, boosts spending on education and provides aid to nursing homes easily passed the Legislature on Friday. Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he plans to sign it next week.

Supporters described it as a sensible approach that targets spending increases while setting aside a large contingency reserve for when federal stimulus ends in the coming years, but Democratic opponents decried what they saw as a missed opportunity to make significant economic and educational progress.

“It is not the kind of practice we should do, to keep squirrelling away money while we go begging to get things done,” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, who nonetheless supported the $39.8 billion general fund budget plan.

The House vote was 140-61, with a handful of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans joining dozens of the more liberal Democrats in voting against it. The Senate vote was 43-7.

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It puts into savings about $5 billion in federal coronavirus relief money and boosts K-12 education state support by $300 million.

“Yes there is money being put away, but this is not austerity simply for austerity’s sake,” said Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford. “We can all see the warning signs — supply shortages, employee shortages. And we understand that yes, a onetime infusion of money into the economy will stimulate it, but only temporarily.”

It pumps $279 million into transportation infrastructure and directs $280 million to nursing homes and similar facilities, both drawing from the federal pandemic money.

House GOP leaders highlighted the $2.5 billion added to the state’s rainy day fund and that much of the rest of the pandemic money was also unspent, calling it a way to prevent future tax increases. The budget contains no tax or fee increases.

“Those people who want to spend every nickel this year are setting us up for a major tax increase in the future,” said Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill. “This makes sense.”

House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said he voted for it to avoid a government shutdown, but argued Pennsylvania is not in a position to claim a surplus.

“We can’t afford a surplus because the requirements of this commonwealth haven’t been met,” Harris said.

Among the budget legislations’ other provisions are a ban on the Department of Human Services creating new programs not expressly authorized by the General Assembly, a Republican effort to control costs at the agency. It also would end overtime regulations imposed by Wolf.

About two-thirds of the new spending is on human services, such as Medicaid, while budget makers also had to use $1 billion-plus to fill a hole in the prisons budget created when the state used federal money to cover costs in that department this year.

With federal money and $2.4 billion in coronavirus money in 2020-21, and including additional spending approved later in the year, the current year’s budget is about $39.8 billion, according to Republican staff on the House Appropriations Committee.

By comparison, the 2021-22 spending deal passed Friday amounts to $38.6 billion in the general fund, along with $1.2 billion in federal support that mostly pays Medicaid costs and about $1 billion on coronavirus relief, for a total of $40.8 billion, or an increase of roughly 2.6%.

Some Democrats wanted greater spending to help small businesses, improve public health and fix toxic schools. The budget deal did not include a raise in the state’s minimum wage.

“We have not done anything for the restaurants, for those in our districts who are making $2.83 whether they’re serving a hamburger or they’re serving a steak,” said House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, said the public will not be happy “when they find out that this money could have been pushed out in a historic, epic way, to invest in the people of Pennsylvania and it wasn’t.”

The budget spends about $370 million in federal aid for continuing efforts to combat the current pandemic.

In education, the budget spends about $350 million in pandemic money on learning loss, summer enrichment and afterschool programs, to help children whose educations were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About $100 million is earmarked for the state’s 100 poorest districts, partly in response to a lawsuit over school funding that will soon go to trial in Commonwealth Court.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the money will “help lift people up in tough, challenging school districts,” while Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, called it “an acknowledgement of the struggles that our poor schools face.”

The budget also funds $30 million in grants to prevent violence, directed to “wherever those dollars are needed,” said House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor, R-York.