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Pa. House approves $28.3 billion GOP budget

Peter Jackson, Associated Press

Children get ready to deliver letters written by Philadelphia public school students to the office of Gov. Tom Corbett as part of an effort organized by education groups to secure enough state aid to head off nearly 3,800 layoffs in the state's largest school district on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Pennsylvania's House of Representatives approved a $28.3 billion state budget plan shaped by the Republican majority and sent to the Senate on Wednesday.

The 108-92 party-line vote capped nearly five hours of sharply partisan debate.

Republican lawmakers portrayed the bill, modeled largely on what GOP Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in February, as a responsible blueprint that would increase spending by more than $500 million without increasing taxes.

"There is no more money to spend in this budget," insisted Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks.

The Democratic minority contrasted the GOP's proposed $300 million-plus business tax break with a $100 million boost in public school funding that critics say is not close to what many school districts need to overcome serious financial problems.

Rep. Joseph Markosek, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the bill falls "woefully short" of restoring nearly $1 billion in school spending cuts Corbett approved two years ago. House Democrats have proposed back-to-back $333 million increases over three years.

"Now is not the time to eliminate the capital stock and franchise tax," the Allegheny County Democrat said, referring to the business tax break.

Rep. Michael H. O'Brien, D-Philadelphia, suggested Corbett has steered state funds to programs that benefit his business allies.

"He gave it to his friends in corporations like you give candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween," O'Brien said.

William Adolph, the Appropriations chairman, scolded the Democrats' "sky-is-falling rhetoric." He said the bill includes modest increases for numerous programs and that overall spending for education constitutes 41 percent of the budget.

It is "a reasonable and sustainable budget that is not predicated on passage of any other major proposal," the Delaware County Republican said.

Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster, said the budget is conservative because the state's economy remains weak.

"We're stuck in neutral and our budget reflects that fact," he said.

Democrats also blamed Republicans for Pennsylvania's failure to accept a federally funded Medicaid expansion that proponents say would provide health care to a half-million uninsured residents while also creating jobs and saving the state money.

"The Republicans should be ecstatic. Instead they don't even want to discuss it," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny. "Ideology is coming before common sense."

Corbett has not ruled out the Medicaid expansion and his administration is continuing to negotiate details with federal officials. Although the expansion takes effect in 2014, state officials have said the needed preparations would likely delay any Pennsylvania expansion until 2015.

The Senate, where Republicans hold a narrower margin of control, is expected to take up the bill during the week of June 24, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. The 2013-14 fiscal year begins July 1.

At a news conference before the House debate, superintendents of five urban school districts — Harrisburg, Reading, Scranton, York and Southeast Delco — added their voices to the calls for increased state funding for schools.

The superintendents said their per-student cuts are deeper than county averages because they depend more on state money to compensate for limited tax bases and help fulfill the broader academic needs of children who are poor or not fluent in English.