Pennsylvania maybe has a budget! Here’s what you need to know

Lawmakers may think they know how to spend the money. Now they just need to figure out how to make it.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: There *could* be a state budget plan in place. And it might even be right around the deadline, rather than nine months late like it was last year.

The House approved a spending plan. The Senate took that spending plan, added some things to it and is sending it back to the House for approval again. That means Gov. Tom Wolf could have a budget on his desk by week’s end. And the Democratic governor and Republican leaders — who so often cannot do the one thing in their job description (ie: govern) because they don’t get along — could actually agree on this in a timely manner. Hear, hear!

So what the hell is going on? Is it possible our state legislators, just weeks after passing historic liquor sales reform, are on track to actually agree on a budget in a timely fashion? It is possible. The big reason? Two words: Election. Year.

But there are still a lot of bugs to iron out, namely the fact that lawmakers may have agreed on a way to spend the money, but they haven’t yet nailed down how to make it. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on right now:

Where do things stand now?

The deadline to pass a budget for fiscal year 2016-17 is technically tonight at midnight. It’s unlikely that’ll happen at this point, but we could have one in place by next week. So, points for trying? Maybe.

Earlier this week, the state House approved a $31.6 billion spending plan that won votes from both sides of the aisle and managed to increase cash flow by $200 million to K-12 public education. The plan was a 4.8 percent increase over current total spending, but is less than what Wolf proposed earlier this year.

That budget that passed the House, 132-68, moved over to the Senate. They made some tweaks, including finding some $39 million extra to send to state-funded higher education, including all 14 state schools and the four state-relateds, being Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln. The House had planned to flat-fund the schools; the Senate’s plan would increase funding by 2.5 percent.

Now the plan goes back to the House. Leaders there haven’t indicated whether or not they’ll approve the new spending plan with the Senate’s changes, but The Patriot-News reports it’s likely a vote on it won’t take place before Friday. If they say “yes,” then it goes to Wolf. He’s been non-committal about the budget, but did thank Senate leaders for their work on the spending plan. Could be a good sign.

How are we paying for this? What about taxes?

Isn’t that the fun part? Lawmakers aren’t sure at this point how we’ll fund this budget. Sure, they may be close to having a spending plan in place. But they don’t have a revenue-making plan yet in order to fund that $31.6 billion budget (in which they’ll have to come up with an additional $1 billion in revenue compared to last year.)

We know lawmakers are considering higher taxes on tobacco — and it’s unclear if those would apply to Philadelphia, which has an additional $2-per-pack cigarette tax on top of the state taxes that already exist. They’re also looking at greatly expanding legalized gambling in Pennsylvania, which has proven a huge moneymaker for our state. Casino owners currently operating in the state, though, are opposed to expansion of slots. More slots = more competition. And the last thing they want is Pennsylvania becoming the next Atlantic City.

Lawmakers are also expecting to bring in more funding on liquor sales since stores are now open longer and it’s possible Pennsylvanians could be buying more booze.

What we do know probably won’t be used to fund the spending plan: An increase to the sales, personal income or natural gas extraction taxes.

I’m sorry, what? Wasn’t that the big problem last year?

It was. And this is where politics come in.

Welcome to 2016, a big legislative election year in which a large chunk of lawmakers in Harrisburg are up for re-election. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, many of whom ran on a promise that they would not increase taxes. That was a huge problem last year when they weren’t up for re-election, and they didn’t budge then. They certainly aren’t going to budge now.

So this year, Wolf took the personal tax increases off the table. And it doesn’t appear the politically-controversial natural gas extraction tax will be floated, either.

What happens if the budget is close to on-time? They get a prize?

Nah. Remember when the budget was nine months late last year? And public schools threatened to close and state-funded non-profits were missing funding for a large portion of the year?

Nothing really happened to the legislators. There’s no requirement that a budget be done on time, so it’s not like their salary is tied to actually getting along and doing their jobs. However, approval ratings for both Wolf and the General Assembly reached historic lows during the budget stalemate.

And in a big political year, you can bet they don’t want to do that again.

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