Pennsylvania's House of Representatives on Thursday approved a Republican-crafted spending plan, pushing it a step closer to enactment with the beginning of the state's new fiscal year closing in.
The 120-81 vote culminated more than three hours of debate over the $27.7 billion proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year that starts Sunday. It sets the stage for a final Senate vote as early as Friday.
The proposal was negotiated by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, who originally advocated limiting spending to this year's $27.1 billion, and leaders of the Legislature's Republican majorities, who convinced Corbett that tax collections are healthy enough to sustain hundreds of millions more.
All but one Republican voted in favor of it, while just 11 Democrats joined them.
The plan boosts spending by 1.5 percent, mostly to cover the rising cost of health care and public-employee pensions, and provides new business tax cuts. It would hold public education spending level after this year's 10 percent reduction — financially ailing school districts would see a little more aid — while cutting funds for county-run social services and shutting down a Depression-era program that provides a $200-a-month cash benefit for disabled adults who are unable to work.
"This is a fiscally responsible, but caring, prioritized budget," House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said in the final throes of the debate.
Democrats accused the Republicans of sitting on a surplus that could be tapped to blunt some of the social service cuts and charging that the "no-tax" budgets would force increases in local property taxes necessary to run the public schools while locking in this year's subsidy reduction.
"My advice to Pennsylvanians ... is don't get old, don't get sick, don't try to educate kids, don't be unlucky enough to be disabled, don't try to find a job, don't try to catch a bus and don't try to find a non-deficient bridge," said Rep. Joe Markosek of Allegheny County, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
The state is expected to have an almost $400 million surplus at the end of next year, Republicans estimate.
Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, criticized ongoing personnel reductions at the Department of Environmental Protection, citing estimates that 60,000 natural-gas wells will be drilled in the state over 20 years.
"The environmental stresses are increasing and the resources we are giving the agency to enforce environmental laws are decreasing," he said.
Rep. Michelle F. Brownlee, D-Philadelphia, said the proposal is "sinking every lifeboat that the truly needy people in this commonwealth need to keep afloat."
Republicans cited the critics' broad-ranging complaints as evidence that the plan is a genuine compromise that balances Pennsylvanian's needs with fiscal responsibility.
"You are the fiscal stewards of the taxpayers' hard-earned dollar," Turzai said. "They are taking money from their pocket and giving it to this Legislature to spend in an appropriate and responsible manner."
"Pennsylvania faces the same challenge that every state in America faces ... how to make do with less," said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery. "Pennsylvania is a balanced-budget state. We don't print money and we don't deficit-spend."
"None of us ever gets everything we want," said Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks.
Later, the Senate Rules Committee advanced the bill, 12-4, toward a floor vote Friday, but only after Republicans killed a Democratic amendment on a party-line vote to restore $150 million to keep the cash benefit alive.
"This is about government and its responsibility to people of all stripes and all types," said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.
In other action, the House unanimously approved a bill to widen the scope of professional evaluations for Pennsylvania teachers and principals. The bill's provisions are likely to be folded into a school-code bill that would be passed before lawmakers recess for their summer break, said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
The bill would replace the present evaluations that are based entirely on classroom observations by superiors. The new system would rely on those observations for only half of an educator's rating and the other half would be based on multiple measures of student achievement, including standardized test scores, classroom activities and quiz scores.
On Thursday night, the House voted 106-95 to go along with a Senate version of legislation to establish a state system to identify and help financially distressed school districts by providing technical assistance and loans.
The action sends the measure to Corbett, fulfilling two of the top priorities on the governor's education agenda.
Under the bill, if the state declares a district to be in "financial recovery status," the state would appoint a chief recovery officer to oversee development of a recovery plan. If the school board does not cooperate in implementing the plan, the state would be required to petition the county court for the appointment of a receiver who would implement the plan.