Pennsylvania Budget

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs the main appropriations bill in a $34 billion budget package that passed the Legislature this week at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf signed a $34 billion state budget on Friday that calls for a 1.8 percent increase in spending, but no tax increase.

As part of the package, the state House on Friday sent Wolf a bill that will allow the state to take over operation of the exchange created under the Affordable Care Act to provide health care coverage for people without access to other health plans.

State officials say that they can manage the exchange for less than what the federal government now charges and use the savings to lower the cost of premiums for people who get insurance from its health care plans.

“I am proud of the budget before me: More than $300 million for education. Lower health care costs for at least 400,000 Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said. “Officially doubling early childhood education funding in five years. Stopping cuts to agencies and other services. Making sure kids start school at age six and stay there until they are 18. The most expansive state GI bill in the nation.”

The budget was approved by the state Senate on Thursday, two days after it passed the state House.

The governor had to wait a day because of a last-minute dispute in the state House over the state’s school spending plan, inflamed in part by the move to change the compulsory school age. On Friday morning, the House passed the school plan, clearing the way for the Wolf to approve the spending plan.

A group of 31 Republicans opposed the school plan, mostly over a change lowering the age that students are required to attend school – from 8 to 6.

State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, was one of the dissident Republicans, voting against the school plan.

“Kids do not all develop at the exact same pace and the appropriate school starting age is best determined by parents rather than a one size fits all state law,” Roae said.

The measure passed after Democrats dropped their opposition. They’d been upset that legislation authored by Democrats to boost career and technical education programs wasn’t included in the school spending bill. The House on Friday unanimously voted to amend a separate bill to include the measures proposed by the Democratic lawmakers. That legislation went to the Senate for concurrence, but lawmakers there didn’t act on the measure before ending their June session.

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, said there are no plans for the Senate to return from the summer break to take up that bill. Neither chamber is due back at the Capitol until September, now that the budget’s been put to bed.

One of the final bills passed as part of the budget package was House Bill 3, which allows the state to begin running its Affordable Care Act exchange.

The Senate has already passed the ACA exchange bill and Wolf is expected to sign it next week.

The federal government collects a 3.5 percent fee on premiums paid by people who get insurance through the exchange, according to state Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman in testimony to the House insurance commission in May. Those fees translate into about $88 million a year. State officials believe they can run the state exchange for less than $35 million and use the $53 million in savings for a program to cut premium costs for people covered by the exchange plans.

Antoinette Kraus, director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, said that taking over the exchange is a “smart move.”

She pointed to a January survey her group helped conduct that found that half Pennsylvanians asked said they struggle to find affordable health care. The study found that 4-in-5 people surveyed said they worry about the future cost of health care.

“A reduction in the cost of health insurance premiums comes at a critical time for many families, individuals, and small business owners,” she said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.