Pa lawmakers reach budget logjam

June 28, 2008 3:10:54 PM PDT
Pennsylvania's state budget process jumped the tracks on Saturday as a key participant stayed home, and top leaders did not meet, with just two days remaining in the fiscal year.

The House and Senate held brief voting sessions but an expected midafternoon budget session did not materialize and both sides pointed fingers.

"You finally get to the point where you can't budge any more off your position," said House Majority Whip Keith McCall, D-Carbon.

At the other end of the Capitol, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Gib Armstrong, R-Lancaster, said he was trying to "distinguish between the wants and the needs" in light of the state's falling revenue figures.

"It's part of the gamesmanship," he said of the stall in talks. "We're responsible - we don't want to see anyone furloughed."

Negotiators have whipsawed between optimism and frustration in recent days as pressure has mounted to strike a deal before the Monday night deadline.

Talks broke off late Friday with no sign of an agreement, a setback for those who earlier in the day had expressed guarded hope that an end to the annual budgetary tug-of-war might be near.

"We were on the 20-yard line, heading for the end zone," House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, said on the floor Saturday. "There was a fumble, and now we're on the 29- or 32-yard line."

House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans stayed away from the Capitol on Saturday. Evans said he had a family obligation in his Philadelphia district and was disappointed in the Senate Republicans' approach to the talks.

"My problem is they don't know how to close a deal," he said in a phone interview Saturday. "They just push too much. No, we can't cut any more. And we're not cutting education, and we're not going to cut public assistance any more."

Leaders said they would meet at noon Sunday to restart high-level talks.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's most recent budget proposal did not balance and that the education funding formula the administration has proposed is skewed to favor Philadelphia.

"They've heard very clearly what we want," Pileggi said. "They might disagree with it."

A long list of issues remain on the table, from education spending and infrastructure investment to energy policy and the size of the increase in total spending.

Greg Fajt, Rendell's chief of staff, described the next meeting as being of paramount importance.

The decision about whether to furlough about 25,000 state workers at midnight on Monday will depend on the status of budget talks as the deadline nears, he said.

Any deal will take days to formalize even after a handshake agreement among the leaders, and the lack of action on Saturday makes it a foregone conclusion that for the sixth straight year under Rendell the budget will not be in place by July 1.

"This definitely set us back," said Rep. Mario Civera of Delaware County, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee. "Count five days from now or even more. We're definitely into next weekend."

"I'm really upset about it," he said. "When you talk about furloughs and people's jobs, how do you look at them in the face and say we're not sitting at the table?"

Fajt said the sides were communicating, aides were talking to each other and that he was cautiously optimistic a breakthrough can occur by the deadline.

"The fact that we aren't meeting at a table with all five parties there does not mean negotiations aren't ongoing," he said.

The governor's $28.3 billion budget proposal would increase state subsidies for public schools by 6 percent. He also is seeking passage of a package of energy bills.

Also under consideration is billions in borrowing to pay for repairs and improvements to municipal water and sewer facilities, invest in cleaner-energy projects, and fix some of the state's thousands of structurally deficient bridges.