Pa. gov. signs budget ahead of midnight deadline

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a new state budget Thursday night, reaching his goal of enacting a 2011-12 spending plan before the new fiscal year began with just 15 minutes to spare....

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a new state budget Thursday night, reaching his goal of enacting a 2011-12 spending plan before the new fiscal year began with just 15 minutes to spare.

It was the first time in nine years the state budget was completed before the start of July.

The signing ceremony before midnight in the Capitol Rotunda followed a dizzying week of lawmaking and deal cutting by the GOP majorities in the House and Senate. Both chambers until September.

"It puts us on the road to financial recovery," the Republican governor said. "It confronts and deals realistically with a $4.2 billion structural deficit. This is a budget that works for Pennsylvania."

The $27.2 billion spending plan makes deep cuts to education aid and holds the line on human services costs despite rising demand for services, but it does not raise new taxes as Pennsylvania confronts a drop in state revenues and the loss of federal stimulus money.

"We must balance our spending with the many needs of the commonwealth," Corbett said. "In a time of fiscal hardship, government must make difficult decisions but live within its means."

The budget bill, sent to Corbett on Wednesday without a single Democratic vote in favor, cut spending by 3 percent, lowered business taxes and left hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve.

Democrats warned that it would prompt higher tuition, property tax increases and layoffs, and argued that a higher assessment on hospitals was indeed a tax increase.

Corbett won broad new powers from the Legislature to fast-track changes to a range of human services program, as well as new measures to check for eligibility for public assistance. He also said the budget complied with his demand to eliminate state grants nicknamed "WAMs," for walking-around money — funds that legislative leaders in the past had been able to direct to lawmakers' pet programs.

The budget included cuts of about $1.1 billion to public schools and universities as Corbett insisted on no tax increases to protect struggling families and reductions in state government to balance what he called a multibillion-dollar deficit.

Overall, the plan will reduce money for public schools by roughly 10 percent — with the poorest districts sustaining the biggest blows — and by nearly 20 percent for state-supported universities.

Democrats, who were excluded from budget negotiations, complained bitterly about the plan, saying the GOP was balancing the budget on the backs of school employees, students, the sick, jobless and needy. Democrat said businesses, including the exploration giants flocking to Pennsylvania to drill into the vast Marcellus Shale natural gas formation, did not share in the pain.

Corbett acknowledged that unfinished business remained on major items he sought, such as creating taxpayer-paid vouchers to help more students go to private schools.

"There are items to be completed, it is not over," Corbett said. "We will be back in September."

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