February 4, 2014 / 10:06 PM / in 4 years

Schools, pensions in Pennsylvania gov's budget plan

Feb 4 (Reuters) - Pennsylvania should spend more money on education and less on public pensions, Governor Tom Corbett said in the $29.4 billion budget he proposed on Tuesday.

Corbett, a Republican up for re-election this year, was expected to boost education funding in his fiscal 2015 state spending plan because the issue has dogged him in the polls. Only about one in four voters thinks he should be re-elected.

While he kept the state’s basic education funding flat at $5.5 billion, he proposed expanding a $100 million block grant by an additional $241 million.

Philadelphia’s school system - which has had to lay off thousands of teachers and staffers and close at least two dozen schools - would get $50.7 million of the grant money, almost 10 times more than the next-closest school district in terms of funding.

The additional money “falls far short of the funding needed to restore the student programs and services lost to previous budget cuts,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was encouraged by the additional funding and would review it in the coming days.

Corbett also revived calls on Tuesday for changes to the state’s retirement system for public employees, which has $50 billion of unfunded liabilities and is only about 62 percent funded.

He pushed for reforms last year that would lower state and local payments into the system while cutting benefits for future workers and move them onto a defined-contribution, 401(k)-style plan.

But the legislature, controlled by his own party, did not act on the proposals.

Corbett also proposed increasing spending on state police, as well as allowing some natural gas drilling on public lands, which could bring in $75 million of immediate revenue, plus future royalties.

Overall, the budget for public welfare would rise by 3.9 percent due to increased spending on programs that address domestic violence and rape, as well as inpatient and outpatient medical assistance.

Corbett suggested a 10 percent cut to the conservation and natural resources department, which includes parks. He also would eliminate appropriations for eight agriculture programs, a veterans assistance program and multiple health programs, including for diabetes, regional poison control centers and bio-technology research.

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