HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives passed the main bill in a just-unveiled $34 billion compromise budget plan on Tuesday, despite hard criticism by rank-and-file Democrats that included a floor fight over whether they could criticize the package for lacking a minimum wage increase.
Democrats also bitterly protested the bill’s defunding of a Depression-era cash assistance program for the poor, a Republican demand that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also opposes in a budget package that he otherwise supports.
Still, Democratic leaders voted for the bill, even as they said they would continue to fight for an increase in the minimum wage and to keep the cash assistance program, called “general assistance.”
“At a time when the stock market has never been higher, corporate profits are soaring and yet we’re cutting general assistance,” said Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery. “How do we make that point? How do we explain that to people?”
After four hours of debate, the bill passed, 140-62, with a handful of Republicans joining most Democrats in opposing it. Senate approval of the bill is required as the fiscal year ticks down. The new 2019-20 fiscal year starts Monday.
The Republican-controlled Legislature was in the midst of a flurry of votes on bills this week as they rush to approve hundreds of pages of budget-related legislation and depart Harrisburg for the summer.
The budget package capitalizes on strong tax collections to boost aid to public schools and universities and stuff cash into reserve.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the package does not rely on any increases in fees or taxes and represents the “largest investment in education” in decades.
Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Fulton, told colleagues during floor debate the bill meets the state’s needs “in an exceptional way.”
“We are working on behalf of those hard-working families that continue to send checks to this commonwealth,” Topper said during floor debate. “When we talk about revenue, we understand we’re not holding a hoagie sale on the Capitol steps.”
In the first hour of the debate, Democrats repeatedly criticized Republican resistance to an increase in the minimum wage, something Wolf has advocated for all five years he has been in office.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, repeatedly warned Democrats about bringing it up, at one point saying, “I’m going to strike any other reference to minimum wage” from the official transcript of the floor proceedings.
The $34 billion compromise package is similar to the $34.1 billion plan Wolf floated in February.
All told, the package authorizes almost $2 billion in additional spending through the state’s main operations account, or 6% more than the spending lawmakers authorized last year, counting cost overruns in the current fiscal year.
Much of the extra spending covers new discretionary aid for public schools, plus extra amounts to meet rising costs for prisons, debt, pension obligations and health care for the poor.
Still, budget makers are using cash maneuvers to veil the true cost of government operations, moving hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to outside accounts. Budget makers also have a recent history of low-balling spending estimates for health care services on the front end of the fiscal year, costs they must make up at the end of the fiscal year.
Eliminating general assistance saves an estimated $50 million.
The program temporarily provides $200 a month to people deemed unable to work because they are disabled or in addiction treatment. Wolf’s office has not said what the governor might do, if anything, to try to save it.