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Wide-ranging budget bill could end up in court

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 7, 2014 at 5:16 pm •  Published: July 7, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Key budget-related legislation on tap for consideration Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Senate covers topics from how oil and gas drilling should be regulated to how billions of dollars for public schools should be spent, despite complaints that it trips over constitutional guidelines that bills be limited to a single subject.

Aides to top Republicans say courts have allowed the Legislature's practice of creating a wide-ranging "fiscal code" bill that guides how money from a general appropriations bill is to be spent, as long as each subject is linked by clear wording to how the money is spent.

"An omnibus fiscal code bill is not something that is per se unconstitutional," said Drew Crompton, the chief counsel for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. "In fact, (the state Supreme Court) said just the opposite."

Still, some Democratic lawmakers contend the bill is unconstitutional.

"Ultimately, it will be up to a court to decide, if someone wants to press the issue," said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.

The bill began Jan. 23, 2013, as four pages that set guidelines for reimbursing rural hospitals that treat the poor or uninsured.

That is largely how it passed the House last September before a Senate committee overhauled it on June 30. After closed-door negotiations between leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities, gone was the rural-hospital wording and replacing it was 110 new pages.

Those pages guide the distribution of billions of dollars for public schools and hospitals, change how oil and gas drilling is regulated in the state, establish a new community college in northwestern Pennsylvania and allow another $10 fee on certain state court filings.

Other provisions reduce the license fee that bar owners must pay to operate forms of gambling and cement the case for a new round of leasing publicly owned lands for natural gas drilling.

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