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Pa. Lawmakers Return For June With Big Agenda, Sharp Differences

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP/KDKA) — Pennsylvania state lawmakers are returning to session Monday with a big June agenda and sharp differences over the future of the state's finances, schools, energy sector and election procedures.

With four weeks to wrap up work for an on-time budget, the Republican-controlled Legislature will have lots of distractions: the month is packed with lawmakers' fundraisers and impending votes on hot-button social issues.

Republican lawmakers are also under pressure from Donald Trump to pursue a "forensic audit" of the 2020 presidential election. And the Capitol is still under a mask mandate for employees, a reminder of the pandemic that disrupted the ebb and flow of lawmaking for a year and which has driven deeper partisan divides.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has reported some good fiscal news: a huge surplus since tax collections rebounded far better than expected from the pandemic's impact. Meanwhile, sitting in a state bank account is $7.3 billion of federal money from the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed in March.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said the Republican-controlled Senate's focus is wrapping up the budget, as well as funding for public and private education, broadband and transportation.

"We're not used to this, but we have money, we have plenty of money," said Ward.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are notorious for not passing the budget on time. In 2009, the budget was held up for 100 days. State employees were furloughed.

Now this year, the debate is over how to spend it.

"What investments do we make across Pennsylvania? What degree do we reserve some money to allow us to move forward? Not just in the upcoming fiscal year, but subsequent fiscal years as well," said Senator Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.

"We have to be aware that this is a one-time infusion of federal money," said Senator Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, Beaver, Greene. "We have to spend it very carefully, very wisely on projects and things that will bring us a return on that investment."

Election legislation is also a top priority in June, but deep partisan differences make its passage iffy.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sorting through which elements of Wolf's coronavirus disaster declaration to keep in place, and which to end right away. They also want Wolf to drop his effort, through regulation, to impose a price on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, starting next year.

Central to the budget debate is the current year's surplus, which is expected to exceed $3 billion.

However, the state also used nearly $4 billion in one-time cash — much of it federal coronavirus aid — to prop up this year's $36.5 billion budget. They may need to find cash to replace much of it, as well as to cover roughly $800 million in cost-overruns.

The surplus has put aside Wolf's talk of a broad overhaul of the personal income tax, proposed in February.

But Wolf still wants a $1.3 billion boost to public school aid, about a 20% increase. That would ensure that Pennsylvania begins using its six-year-old school-funding formula in a meaningful way for the first time.

The proposal has strong support from Democratic lawmakers.

"This is an opportunity that we can't let pass by," said Bill Patton, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

The formula, in part, was meant to help boost aid to Pennsylvania's poorest school districts, many of which serve big populations of African American and Latino children.

Republicans planned Monday to begin advancing their own schools plan, which revolves around charter and private schools.

The bill would give a panel dominated by lawmakers' appointees the authority to approve charter schools — taking that power away from local school boards — and ramping up taxpayer-financing of private schools through tax credits.

That has drawn swift opposition from public school advocates.

Wolf and Republicans also are sorting through how to use the federal aid through 2024. That aid comes with restrictions on how it can be used.

House and Senate Democrats have each issued a plan on how to spend the money. Republicans have not floated a plan, although they have talked about spending it conservatively and keeping some in reserve.

(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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