Rendell moves to pay state workers

July 30, 2009 6:45:49 AM PDT
Gov. Ed Rendell outlined a plan Wednesday that holds out the promise of pay for thousands of state workers and government vendors within two weeks if legislative leaders remain at an impasse in resolving the budget crisis.

The Democratic governor said if the impasse continues through the weekend he wants the Democratic-controlled House to approve and send him a Republican-penned budget that has already passed the Senate.

Rendell would then pare the budget bill down by using his line-item veto, bringing relief to some 80,000 state workers and some of the thousands of companies that do business with the state.

"Let me be clear that this is not a solution to Pennsylvania's budget problems," Rendell told reporters. "This is a way to help us get our state employees paid, and our state employees have not been the cause of the problems that we are faced with."

Pennsylvania's state government began July without a fiscal-year budget in place, severely curtailing its legal authority to spend money and pay employees. Thousands of vendors, as well as legislators and about 1,000 court employees, have not been paid this month.

Tens of thousands more state employees, including Rendell, have received partial paychecks on the past two Friday paydays. This week, 33,000 employees will get nothing on payday.

Rendell made the announcement Wednesday as a joint conference committee of six legislative leaders met in an unusual public session, during which they largely restated their positions on the estimated $28 billion budget and could only agree to meet again Thursday.

"It was basically a repeat of points that have been made on the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate and in press conferences since at least May," Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said in summing up their discussion.

Pileggi, a committee member, said the upside of Rendell's strategy was that it would help state workers caught in the crossfire, but he also warned it would reduce the pressure on lawmakers to strike a deal.

"It will inevitably stretch things out," he said.

The earliest the measure could reach Rendell's desk is Tuesday; it would take about five more days for the state Treasury to process checks, including back pay, for state employees. That assumes the House goes along with the governor.

Rendell's plan would leave in limbo billions of dollars for public schools, hospitals, universities, county-level human services and other government programs until negotiators hammer out a budget agreement that was supposed to be in place at the start of July.

The joint conference committee is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. During the meeting, they immediately began to bicker over who would preside, how the agenda would be set, and when and where future meetings would be held. The focus eventually shifted to budget disagreements.

In general, Democrats want more money for education than Republicans; Republicans oppose hikes in the state income tax or sales tax, and they want to first establish the overall size of the budget.

"We really need to come to an agreement on how much money we have to spend before we start to spend," said House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson.

Rendell and his Democratic allies are seeking about $2 billion more than the Republicans have proposed for the fiscal year. Democrats warn that underfunding education would trigger local property-tax increases, while Republicans are wary of spending built on one-time sources of money.

Associated Press writer Marc Levy contributed to this report.

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