Budget battle being driven by ideology

Rendell faces his toughest budget battle yet

Not since Gov. Rendell took office in 2003 has a state budget proposal exposed this starkly the deepening ideological divide between legislative Republicans and Rendell and his Democratic supporters in the General Assembly.

The state's growing $3 billion budget gap, along with the impact of the recession and partisan division over the federal economic stimulus program, has brought to the fore philosophical differences that were not as pronounced in healthier times.

"Republicans have always claimed there's too much spending," said G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "This year there's a sharper ideological edge to their comments driven by the national mood."

At the heart of the debate are conflicting views about how the state should respond to the struggling economy.

Senate Republicans say their $27.3 billion budget proposal controls spending and would prevent future tax hikes. Democrats, who support Rendell's $29 billion budget, argue that continued expenditures would help pull the state out of the slump and ensure that a growing number of people who need services would get them.

At a news conference, Rendell said that by slicing $1.3 billion from the total for last year's budget, he tried to make "responsible cuts" while continuing to extend help to "people who are in trouble."

In addition to using roughly $2.4 billion in stimulus funding to help balance his proposed budget, Rendell offered a menu of limited tax increases, including a 10-cents-a-pack increase on cigarettes, and new taxes on smokeless tobacco and natural-gas extraction.

The Republicans rejected any tax increases or withdrawals from the state's Rainy Day Fund and instead made deeper budgetwide cuts.

In the eyes of Rendell and the Democrats, some of the steepest Republican reductions targeted education, which they said would put pressure on school districts to raise taxes. Democrats also said proposed cuts in health-care funding could jeopardize stimulus money, job training, Head Start, libraries, and child care.

"It's extremely mean. It goes beyond common sense," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.