Local lawmakers weigh in on Corbett budget plan

Gov. Tom Corbett focused heavily on education, job creation and health care in his 2014-15 budget proposal Tuesday, and area lawmakers chimed in on where they come down on the issues.

State Reps. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, and Garth Everett, R-Muncy, emphasized the $29.4 billion proposal is just that – a blueprint, subject to intense scrutiny and debate over the coming months.

It raises overall state spending by 3.3 percent, Baker said, with a projected $1 billion revenue deficit. Everett, who’s on the House Appropriations Committee, noted the reason it won’t be passed until June is that revenue projections won’t firm up until shortly before then.

Everett said since the recession, “There’s a lot of heavy lifting to make this (budget process) work,” particularly as many of Corbett’s proposals require Legislative action, such as pension and state liquor reform.

Everett called liquor privatization “possible,” but stalled in the Senate. State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said he favors liquor modernization (where and how it’s sold), but not an overhaul of the state system.

Further, Corbett put pension reform in the Legislature’s hands, Everett said, calling for proposals to be passed. Yaw said if nothing is done to fix it long-term, “It’s going to eat us alive.”

Corbett’s economic comments harkened back to his energy plan, Energy Equals Jobs, Yaw said, and Corbett showcased Williamsport as an example of the difference natural gas jobs can make to an area.

“(This is) proof of the gas industry and what can happen, and the jobs it will produce,” Yaw said.

Much, however, depends on the state’s economic climate, regarding Corbett’s projections. “If we have a lot of jobs and business is good, I think all these projections will fall into place; if business is not good, we’ll have additional problems,” Yaw said.

Baker said as House health chairman, he was “happy to see some health care initiatives funded.” He authored a 2011 bill to update Pennsylvania’s Family Caregiver Support Program to include non-relative caregivers and bring the state program in line with its federal counterpart. As such, he was pleased to see $24 million in the budget for home- and community-based services for 1,250 people with intellectual disabilities and autism.

Baker called the $363 million increase to pre-K through 12th-grade funding the “best news” of the budget, saying it’s the most state funding for it in state history, bringing the total to $10.3 billion.

However, state Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven, said while that’s a great place to start, he was cautionary toward Corbett’s plan to provide $25 million through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for new merit-based Ready to Succeed scholarships for middle-income students pursuing two- or four-year post-secondary degrees.

“PHEAA, because of the way they allocate dollars in grants, the lion’s share of money goes to students going to private schools based on tuition sticker prices,” Hanna said. ” … In private schools, very few students pay the sticker price.” Hanna proposes to base it on actual prices students pay, not the sticker price.

With this budget, “As PHEAA does slant toward students going to private schools, we have to be careful this ($25 million) doesn’t carry the same bias,” Hanna said.

Plus, higher education received flat funding, which concerned state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport. “My concern is by not focusing on higher education, we’re not creating a pathway for people out of these $8-an-hour jobs,” Mirabito said.

The most glaring absence was on the soaring flood insurance rates due to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, Mirabito said.

“I didn’t expect a huge amount or a plan to solve it, but I was concerned I didn’t hear any mention of it at all because it obviously has become a big concern to people,” Mirabito said.

Regarding revenue, Mirabito said Corbett “missed an opportunity to raise revenue in a reasonable way.” Mirabito advocates a tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars, and a natural gas drilling severance tax. He took issue with Corbett calling this a no-tax-hike budget, as he passed the transportation bill with what Mirabito calls “the largest gasoline taxes in the country.”

Further, Mirabito claimed Corbett is “spending three times more in the overall state budget than was spent in the three prior years combined,” based on the total operating budget, not just general fund.

With the coming months of debate, “All of this is yet to be determined,” Everett said.