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How should PA use its massive $14 billion surplus? Lawmakers prepare for budget showdown.

By MARC LEVY (Associated Press)

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers return to session Monday to begin a four-week countdown to the start of the state’s next fiscal year, with Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and Republican lawmakers offering competing visions for how to use a massive surplus.

Shapiro has floated an admittedly “ambitious” $48.3 billion budget plan that would rely on about $3 billion in reserve cash and would feature a top Democratic priority: boosting public school funding.

Republicans, who control the state Senate, said the governor’s proposal would put the state on course to drain a $14 billion surplus within a few years before they passed their own $3 billion tax-cutting plan, which Democrats said would have a similar effect.

Meanwhile, June may also feature efforts to reconcile differences between competing plans from Shapiro and Republican lawmakers to boost college enrollment and affordability in Pennsylvania.

The ramping up of negotiations before the July 1 start of the fiscal year comes against the backdrop of an ugly budget blowup last year over an 11th-hour deal between Shapiro and Republicans to start a new $100 million private school funding program. Democrats who control the House dug in against it, precipitating a fight over a $45 billion budget plan that dragged into December.

Shapiro has spent much of the spring on the road promoting his priorities, and his office has said little about his talks with lawmakers.

“You can expect to see the governor continuing to be on the road in June, meeting Pennsylvanians where they are, meeting them in their communities, and talking about how we need to get stuff done on the issues that matter most,” said Shapiro’s press secretary, Manuel Bonder.

In recent weeks, Shapiro went Jet Skiing on Lake Wallenpaupack in northeastern Pennsylvania and threw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game in Lancaster as part of a week-long tour to highlight his tourism rebranding of Pennsylvania as the “Great American Getaway.”

He rode a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train in suburban Philadelphia to tout a proposal for a $283 million increase, or nearly 25% more, for public transit agencies. And he visited centers that help people with intellectual disabilities to promote his plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to end a waiting list of thousands of families seeking help for an intellectually disabled adult relative.

The question remains, however, about whether Shapiro can coax the nation’s only politically divided Legislature into a timely budget deal.

Thus far, lawmakers have taken no budget votes.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said budget negotiations are in the early stages, as the sides sort out which issues they might be able to settle in June.

“That’s how budgetary processes start,” Pittman said. “I think the next 30 days or so will be very dynamic. But I think there’s certainly a willingness to try to get to the brass tacks of what it’s going to take to finish up a responsible budget.”

That said, it may take past July 1 to finish — time that Senate Republicans are prepared to take to get a good result, Pittman said.

A dominant feature of the new spending sought by Shapiro is a $1.1 billion boost, or 14% more, for public schools.

That reflects recommendations produced in January by Shapiro appointees and Democratic lawmakers to respond to a court decision that found that Pennsylvania’s system of public school funding violates the constitutional rights of students in the poorest districts.

Democratic lawmakers support Shapiro’s plan, but Republicans are signaling that they oppose that level of spending as unsustainable. Instead, they are pushing for more money for private schools.

As for the Republicans’ plan to cut taxes on personal income and electricity service, neither Shapiro nor Democrats have said “no” to it.

When it passed the Senate, it picked up votes from eight Democrats, and Shapiro’s office and Democrats say it marks a change in posture by Republicans, from refusing to touch the surplus to now being willing to use it.

Still, Democrats suggest they will want to redirect the tax cuts, pointing to their proposals to help poorer school districts that have high property tax bills and to cut taxes for the lowest-wage workers through the earned income tax credit.

House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said his caucus is pragmatic and open to a discussion with Republicans.

“Before it was ‘gloom and doom’ and ‘batten down the hatches,’” Bradford said. “And now we’re talking about returning money to working Pennsylvanians.”

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This story has been corrected to identify Bradford as a Democrat, not a Republican.

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Follow Marc Levy at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.


Source: Berkshire mont

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