LOCK HAVEN -For Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, this year's budget saga was a matter of deja vu all over again with one difference - it was only slightly less painful
On Sunday, just minutes before the fiscal year expired, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed another no-tax-hike state budget into law. the action came without a supporting vote from our local legislator, who suggested the governor doubled down on his lukewarm to negative stance on public and higher education.
The final $27.66 billion budget package includes several significant victories for the Corbett administration, including a tax incentive aimed at luring a Shell Oil Co. plant to Beaver County.
Hanna said restoring funding for higher education was a plus for supporters of learning, but pointed to a second year of flat funding for public schools as a major negative impact creator across the commonwealth.
After the restoration of funding for Pennsylvania's public higher education and institutions of higher learning, our colleges and universities have stated that they will now be able to keep tuition increases to a minimum," Hanna said.
"I was a no vote, but it passed," Hanna said. "There's a surprise for you. My biggest concern was that the budget institutionalizes the cuts from last year. It's well and good for them to say they tried to work back to level funding, but the cuts were still cuts to basic education, and when combined with last year's billion dollar cuts, and the hundreds of millions cut from higher education last year ... Well, we're never going to get that back. He's made this permanent and I disagree with it."
Hanna predicted the flat allocations will lead to local school districts cutting programs, will drive up class sizes and ultimately, will raise property taxes and tuition."
"Keystone Central School District, to it's credit, found a way to do without a tax increase this year, but had to raise the rate last years. With these cuts being permanent, the district faces an even more difficult tax process next year.
The bill also includes more than $149 million in additional support for local school districts over what the Governor requested in February.
Hanna also pointed to the public welfare code amendment that initially started at a 20 percent cut and, through intense negotiating by the Democratic legislators and some moderate Republicans, was reduced to 10 percent.
He said the governor also appeared to back away from a block grant concept that would have forced many social services programs to compete with one another for scarce financial resources.
"That's one where the Clinton County commissioners and I weren't entirely on the same page," Hanna said. "I'm sure they supported a restoration of funding, and I think they may have supported the block grant process as providing more local options. However, that's a small difference in approach and they still have the option of pursuing a pilot block grant program included in the budget if they wish."
Several other educational issues remain up in the air, Hanna said.
The budget expands the Educational Improvement Tax Credit - a program designed to target the students in the 15 percent of schools statewide that are not performing up to standards.
"I couldn't support it," Hanna said. "Yes, we all want to help underperforming schools, but taking $50 million away from public education isn't the way to accomplish that goal.
As another example of what he described as a misguided focus, Hanna pointed to Corbett's $1.65 billion give-away in state tax credits over 25 years to companies that build and operate ethylene cracker plants in Pennsylvania.
Only one company, Shell Oil, currently has plans to develop such a plant and the proposed tax credit would be a windfall for Shell, whose parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, is the second largest company in the world[ with revenue of $484 billion in 2011 and profits of $31 billion.
"I voted against that as well," Hanna said. "It wasn't part of the budget bill, but it effects the budget dramatically. Yes, there's a potential for jobs, but it takes money away from our ability to support or critical social services. Every tax expert or advisor you talk to says picking winners for benefits is bad policy because it tilts the level playing field away from all the other players."