Democrats on Wednesday attacked a newly unveiled $27.7 billion state spending plan written by majority Republicans, calling it a gift to big business that will lock in this year's deep cuts in aid to public schools while forcing longer waits for people who need services such as treatment for mental illness or addiction.
The legislation, made public just four days before the new fiscal year begins, passed the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote Wednesday morning after two hours of debate. The House adjourned Wednesday without action on the bill, and floor debate was expected to begin Thursday morning. The plan will need Senate approval after that.
Democrats were getting their first look at the document after having been excluded from private negotiations between Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and his fellow Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature.
"I think this budget represents a woefully misplaced priority," Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, said during the committee meeting.
With lawmakers hoping to wrap up work for the summer on Friday, Republicans still had a lot to do.
They met privately for long periods Wednesday over various last-minute efforts to insert pet provisions into budget-related legislation. Among those was a Corbett administration attempt to win House support to absorb seven different pots of aid for county-administered services - for the homeless, mentally ill and disabled, neglected or abused children and drug and alcohol addicts - into one block grant program.
"I would say that we have a reasonable amount of work to do," House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said after leaving one meeting.
Many nonprofit groups that carry out much of the state's safety-net services oppose it for fear that mandated services, such as child-abuse investigations or court-ordered counseling, will drain much of the money.
House Republicans sought to change the way gambling-financed grants for public construction projects are distributed, while Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, pressed for a provision to remove the state income tax deduction that Pennsylvania allows on contributions toward 529 college-savings plans operated by other states.
Meanwhile, final legislation remained under wraps Wednesday for Corbett's top priority: a $1.7 billion tax break that he wants in an effort to lure a new petrochemical industry to Pennsylvania.
The plan for the 2012-13 fiscal year that begins Sunday would increase spending by about 1.5 percent, largely for debt, pensions, health care for the poor and to help fill a shortfall in the almost-finished fiscal year. It also would cut taxes for businesses by almost $300 million and leave nearly $400 million in reserve from tax collections that are expected to rise by more than 3 percent.
To save money, it would cut 10 percent from aid for many county-run social services and hundreds of millions of dollars from programs in the massive Department of Public Welfare budget that benefit poor, childless adults. Most public schools would get the same amount of aid after sustaining a cut of more than 10 percent this year, while an extra $50 million would be distributed to struggling school districts in an effort to avert a financial collapse.
Regarding cuts to county-administered social services, Bradford said, "we don't even pretend to explain how they're going to make that 10 percent cut work."
Republicans defended the need for the cuts, citing the increasingly expensive state share of public employee pension costs and arguing that helping businesses will enable them hire more people.
"This is a sustainable budget," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware.
Advocates for nonprofit social service providers say prevention programs, such as counselors in schools for children who are showing signs of trouble, could be first on the chopping block.
Republicans were also advancing a proposal to require the welfare department to collect a broad range of financial information from nonprofit providers of state-funded social services, such as salaries, association dues, lobbying expenses, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering services.
Bernadette Bianchi, the executive director of the Harrisburg-based nonprofit group Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services, said that information is already public in the form of IRS reports and audits, and suggested that the service providers are being unfairly targeted.
"We're talking about kids that have already been abused and neglected. That's our target audience and somehow we're being identified as part of the problem instead of part of the solution," Bianchi said.