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HARRISBURG — As the June 30 deadline for the Pennsylvania Legislature’s passage of a new budget nears, support for spending some of the state’s billions in remaining stimulus money and excess tax revenue is gaining bipartisan traction.
Discussions are preliminary and leading budget negotiators stressed on record that nothing concrete was yet.
But lawmakers, lobbyists and senior officials pointed to a series of small bipartisan proposals leaking across the Capitol — on issues from the environment to childcare — that could be the building blocks of a spending plan.
“We’re going ahead and trying to identify areas of agreement first, and then we’re going to identify areas of disagreement and try to resolve those,” said Stan Saylor, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee (R., York).
Each year, the Pennsylvania governor and legislature must agree how tens of billions of dollars should be allocated to education, criminal justice, economic development and social services – decisions that affect every Pennsylvanian.
Negotiations are tricky business. During Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term, the state had less money than expected, leading to protracted budget deadlocks between the Democrat and Republicans, who control the legislature.
Pennsylvania’s financial picture has changed in recent years, with the state coffers receiving a $7.9 billion boost from stimulus funds in 2021. In response, Wolf and his allies in the legislature urged lawmakers to allocate some of that cash bonanza to higher education, paid family vacations, and school repairs, among other priorities.
Instead, Wolf and Legislative Republicans agreed last year to increase funding for education overall, using much of the stimulus money for state operations rather than new programs, squandering billions more on bad times.
Earlier this year, Wolf released a budget proposal that would allocate billions more to education and infrastructure. Republicans countered that additional spending was fiscally irresponsible.
“While this year’s revenue continues to beat estimates, the long-term financial picture for the Commonwealth remains uncertain,” said Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), chair of the Chamber’s Appropriations Committee, in February.
But now that negotiations are starting in earnest, that tune has changed as some Republicans sign or offer projects to spend the state’s surplus. Pennsylvania still has $2.2 billion in remaining stimulus money and at least $4.9 billion in excess tax revenue.
One area of bipartisan support is environmental spending, including clean water projects, land conservation and overdue repairs to state parks.
Lawmakers are also considering using some of that money to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, of which the Susquehanna River is a major tributary.
Runoff from Pennsylvania farms often pollutes the bay across the river, and federal officials have said the state isn’t doing enough to address the problem.
Saylor mentioned the Susquehanna River Basin as an issue we’ll be addressing this year, although he didn’t provide specifics.
Insiders pointed to a bipartisan bill by Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R., Northumberland) that would pour $500 million in stimulus money into such projects, particularly those in the Basin.
Other issues catching Republicans’ attention include more federal funding for child care and pre-K, nursing homes — a constant recipient of funds — and housing.
Progressive lawmakers have built bipartisan support for a broad-based housing plan known as the Whole Homes Repair Fund, which would use stimulus money to give homeowners and landlords grants for renovations large and small.
Browne, the top Senate Republican budget negotiator, is one of the five GOP co-sponsors of the bill. Another supporter, Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), has also proposed a plan to use stimulus money to help developers afford inflated building material prices.
Argall, who represents part of the coal region, said he has often sought state dollars to demolish old, rickety houses. Now that his region is attracting new employers, he’s shifted gears, asking for money to “fix these homes before they collapse” — potentially saving state dollars in the end.
Argall said he spoke to Browne about the issue this week.
“I know it’s on the list,” Argall said. “We’ll see if it makes the final cut.”
Insiders questioned whether an election-year spending spree might hold up among more conservative lawmakers in the state house.
Both Browne and Saylor, the senior Republicans tasked with negotiating the budget, lost their primaries this year, potentially bolstering dissidents opposed to new spending.
Messages from Legislative Republicans also criticized spending seen as excessive, such as Wolf’s proposal to use the stimulus money to send $2,000 checks to some Pennsylvanians.
The State House Republican Policy Committee, which develops and announces policy targets, will focus on inflation this week. A planned meeting is entitled How Radical Liberal Policies Have Driven Inflation to Historic Highs.
Referring to the meetings, State Assemblyman David Rowe (R., Union) said that state Republicans could fight inflation by reducing overall state spending and the size and scope of government.
The state’s current bonanza, Rowe said, has to be spent “on one-way expenses” like infrastructure projects, “as opposed to setting up new bureaucracies, new agencies, new expenses that we then have to keep appropriating to keep going because that money isn’t coming back. “
Rowe said he will await the final budget plan before making a decision on how to vote.
Democrats, who have their own spending priorities, have expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached.
Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), the House Minority Leader, while acknowledging that “the mood” of the recent primary didn’t seem conducive to compromise, she said this year’s surplus should provide an incentive for both sides to ” in good faith and genuinely negotiating Bring it out to the people who are struggling.”
“Doing nothing,” she added, “is unacceptable.”
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