- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the Senate and House Democrats have largely agreed on a budget package to end the state government’s 5½-month stalemate. Leaders of the House’s Republican majority have made clear that they now oppose some elements. Here is a look at the highlights:

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THE BIG PICTURE

The appropriations bill passed by the Senate last week authorizes a spending plan of $30.8 billion, a 6 percent increase over last year’s $29 billion approved budget. It also authorizes another $170 million in spending that will go on last year’s books for a total of nearly $2 billion in new spending. It pushes over $500 million in payments for school construction projects, county child welfare services and school employee retirement costs into the following fiscal year.

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STATE TAXES

A budget agreement with Wolf calls for new revenue of $600 million-plus - or more than $1.2 billion over a full year - from new sources of money, all or nearly all of it from tax increases. A specific plan has not been written into legislation and negotiations on it continued to evolve Wednesday night. House GOP leaders oppose it. Democrats support an increase in the personal income tax; Republicans had preferred an increase in the sales tax.

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SCHOOLS

The appropriations bill includes $365 million to be distributed to public schools for operations and instruction, a 6 percent increase. An education policy bill also passed by the Senate would impose more ethics and open records requirements on charter schools and permit new avenues for them to open, particularly in Philadelphia. It also would impose limits on charter school reserves, postpone the use of tests as a public school graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year and authorize borrowing of at least $2.5 billion to pay the state share of school construction projects.

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PENSIONS

Legislation passed by the Senate would create a mandatory 401(k)-style benefit with a 2.5 percent employer match for state government and public school employees hired in the future. It would keep, but cut in half, the traditional pension benefit of 2 percent for future employees and reduce future pension benefits of current employees. Labor unions have threatened to sue over the provisions affecting current employees. Senate Republicans, who sponsored the bill, estimate that it lowers state pension obligation payments of nearly $200 billion by about $2.6 billion over 30 years.

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LIQUOR

Legislation that passed the Senate last week would allow about 14,000 holders of takeout beer licenses - including restaurants, bars, hotels, supermarkets and delis - to purchase licenses to sell up to four bottles of wine to a customer. Beer distributorships are not included in the bill, and selling hard liquor would remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the approximately 600 state-owned stores. House GOP leaders, who had insisted that liquor legislation be part of a budget package, had sought a stronger privatization measure and say the Senate’s bill cannot pass the chamber.

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