- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and state lawmakers had largely agreed on a budget package to end the state government’s 6-month stalemate before it collapsed Wednesday. There were numerous pieces of major legislation in play, and some questions remaining about the $30.3 billion budget package that the Senate settled on.



The main appropriations bill in a $30.8 billion spending package favored by Wolf passed the Senate two weeks ago and was teed up for a final vote in the House. That spending plan is a 6 percent increase over last year’s $29 billion approved budget and would deliver a record increase - $350 million, a 6 percent increase - to public schools. The main appropriations bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday is part of a $30.3 billion spending package that includes $150 million more for public schools. It lowers costs by postponing over $500 million in payments for school construction projects, county child welfare services and school employee retirement costs into the following fiscal year. It also leaves legislation to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars for universities and colleges up in the air.



Senate officials say a tax increase will be necessary as part of the $30.3 billion budget package to foot the bill for legislation authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars for universities and colleges. That legislation remains stalled in the House. The budget agreement with Wolf had called for new revenue of more than $1.2 billion over a full year from tax increases or other new sources of money.



A major education policy bill remained in limbo in the Legislature. It would distribute about $6 billion to school districts under a new formula. It would impose more ethics and open records requirements on charter schools and provide new avenues for them to open, particularly in Philadelphia. It also would impose limits on charter school reserves, slash payments to cyber charter schools, 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. It also calls for a two-year moratorium on approving new school building construction project applications.



Legislation to restructure benefits in for state government and public school employees passed the Senate, and underwent changes in the House before it was defeated there Saturday. The legislation would create a mandatory 401(k)-style benefit for state government and public school employees hired in the future. It would keep, but cut in half, the traditional pension benefit for future employees and put certain new limits on the future pension benefits of current employees.



Legislation that passed the Senate two weeks ago 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. The bill also would allow state-owned stores more freedom to set hours, sell lottery tickets and market products to improve profitability. It remains in the House.

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