By MARC LEVY
and Paul Rowan
Gazette Managing Editor
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — An $11 billion no-new-taxes spending package won narrow passage in a lame-duck Friday night session in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, as lawmakers voted remotely amid a coronavirus outbreak.
Lawmakers voted, without debate, as they rushed to wrap up their two-year session. House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, announced the remote session after hours of delay Friday, citing an ongoing contact tracing effort. Only lawmakers in leadership remained on the floor for the vote.
The main spending bill passed the House, 104-97, with a Senate vote expected later Friday evening.
State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, praised the measure.
“We have faced many trials and tribulations this year, including the negative impact the pandemic and the resulting business closures have had on all Pennsylvanians’ wallets, as well as on state government finances. In passing this budget today, we not only recognized this, but also worked hard to not create additional burdens on taxpayers in the form of new taxes. This budget includes needed reductions in state government operating costs.
“It’s rare for the Pennsylvania Legislature to create a two-part budget. Considering the uncertainty from the pandemic, this was a necessary step, so policymakers had a clearer picture of the Commonwealth’s fiscal house.”
State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Berlin, called it “a difficult budget for very difficult times.”
The main goal of House Republicans, he said, was to avoid a tax increase.
“We accomplished that, all the time maintaining all of the programs that are essential,” he said.
“It’s not perfect, but I’m certainly pleased that there was no tax increase.”
Also voicing his approval was state Rep. Lou Schmitt of Altoona.
“The times in which we are living are uncertain and that spilled over into how we formulate a budget this year. Today the House approved the second part of the 2020-21 budget, an unusual but necessary move to protect taxpayers as we gained a clearer picture of Pennsylvanian’s fiscal house.
“The budget we approved continues to fully fund schools and education and it also funds core government services, such as public health and community safety, all while not increasing taxes. This funding plan will carry the state through to the end of the fiscal year at the end of June. Because of lost revenue, the budget does include modest, yet needed, reductions in state government operating costs.”
Most Democrats opposed it, reflecting their unhappiness with how federal coronavirus relief aid is being used to underwrite state government costs, rather than provide hazard pay to frontline workers and to aid universities, hospitals and businesses and institutions suffering during the pandemic.
All told, the package authorizes nearly $11 billion in new spending, bringing the current year’s operating budget to $36.5 billion, about 4% above last year’s approved spending. The higher spending is driven primarily by medical care for the poor, elderly and disabled.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has not said whether he would sign it, although Republicans say they worked with his office to negotiate the package.
The Republican-controlled Legislature in May approved a piecemeal, no-new-taxes $25.8 billion budget, as they waited to see how the economic damage from the coronavirus would unfold.