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Pennsylvania budget plan gets bipartisan vote from committee

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania lawmakers took a major step toward a new state budget Monday night with a bipartisan vote by the House Appropriations Committee for a $31.6 billion proposal assembled by the Republican majority.

The spending plan was advanced by a 36-1 vote and was expected to be considered on the chamber floor sometime Tuesday.

Neither the Senate nor Gov. Tom Wolf has signed off on the approach, which includes a $200 million boost for K-12 education and money to address Pennsylvania's opioid drug crisis.

"This is, I think, a very good example of what we can do when we work together," said Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, the committee's ranking Democrat. The only "no" vote came from Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, who said afterward only that it was consistent with his prior budget votes.

Assuming the House votes for it, which appears highly likely, it could land in the Senate with sufficient time to get enacted before the state's new fiscal year begins on Friday.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the Democratic governor did not agree to the bill — he wants funding for education and to address the heroin problem, but he also thinks the spending plan should be balanced with sustainable revenue.

"The governor looks forward to continuing to work with the Legislature, and as the budget moves through the process, he is hopeful all sides can reach an agreement that achieves these goals," Sheridan said.

The bill that advanced out of Appropriations did not address new taxes, but supporters envision a package of higher levies on tobacco products as well as money from legislation pending in the House that would make Pennsylvania the fourth state to allow casino-style gambling online. Tax fights are perpetually divisive in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he had not agreed to the House GOP's spending proposal, or to across-the-board tax increases on tobacco products. The House budget under consideration also lacks wider agreement in the Capitol, Corman said.

"If we want to be out of here June 30, there's no sense sending the governor something that he doesn't want, or at least won't agree to sign, and we can go down that road if we get to the point where we can't agree, but I think we're close enough we probably could agree if we just finalized it," Corman said.

His counterpart, Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the plan does not include money sought by Wolf and Democrats for distressed school districts, higher education institutions or heroin addiction treatment. Costa also said funding fell short by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"What we know of this bill, we can't support this measure right now," Costa said.

Efforts to pass a budget ahead of the new fiscal year's start follow a record-breaking partisan budget stalemate in Wolf's first budget year, a deadlock that was not fully resolved until a few months ago.

House Republicans have squeezed significant concessions from Wolf, who in February proposed a $33.3 billion spending plan — a 10 percent increase — backed by a $2.7 billion tax plan that also called for higher taxes on income, sales and Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

That had included a proposal to raise the per-pack cigarette tax to $2.60, from $1.60, and to extend a 40 percent wholesale tax to sales of larger cigars, loose tobacco, smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes. Those products are currently untaxed by Pennsylvania.

In recent weeks, Wolf and Democrats had pressed for a budget of around $31.9 billion. That had included $250 million extra for public schools and enough money to balance a long-term deficit projected at $1.8 billion in the 2016-2017 fiscal year by the Legislature's Independent Fiscal Office.

Pennsylvania's $1.60 per pack tax on cigarettes is tied for the nation's 23rd highest with Ohio and Delaware, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Increasing it by $1 to $2.60 would make it the nation's 10th highest cigarette tax.

Associated Press

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