2 major budget bills pass Pa. House

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - October 7, 2009 The House approved a tax package, 102-96 with a single Republican vote, sending it to Gov. Ed Rendell. Hours later the House also sent over to the Senate the budget's primary spending bill, on a 107-93 vote.

Even supporters found a good deal to criticize in the $27.8 billion appropriations bill that made deep cuts to a broad range of state government services and eliminated more than a few popular programs.

"There are a thousand things that I don't like in this budget, but there's one thing we all like, and that's those people we represent that we need to help," said Rep. Bud George, D-Clearfield. "So let's help them by passing a budget and getting the stalemate off our heads."

House Republicans argued that taxes were being increased too much and the spending cuts were insufficient.

"This bill is one of the largest tax increases ever on the citizens of Pennsylvania, and the fact of the matter is that we do not need a tax increase to have a responsible budget," said Minority Whip Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

The tax package, which had previously passed the Senate, increases cigarettes by a quarter a pack and subjects some businesses to a higher capital stock and franchise tax, although some other business taxes were lowered.

It did not include several tax increase proposals that had generated heated debate over the past months, including on retail sales, personal income, gas drilling, arts tickets, small games of chance and smokeless tobacco. The economic downturn has left Pennsylvania with a massive revenue hole to fill - its collections were nearly $3.3 billion below projections for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Also included in the revenue measure were a tax amnesty program and the withdrawal of hundreds of millions from the state's rainy day fund and an account that helps doctors pay malpractice premiums. Rendell's staff said he planned to sign it.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said the spending bill reduced environmental programs too dramatically.

"The viciousness of the cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection reflects more an attitude, a contempt for environmental protection, than it does a need to marshal scarce resources," Vitali said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, signaled the appropriations bill faced good odds of passage in his chamber but stopped short of endorsing it.

"While I would very much like to say we have an agreement, given the 100-day history of this budget saga, the Senate will review the document in detail after it passes the House," Pileggi said. That review could take all day Thursday, he said.

Earlier in the day, the House approved a bill consolidating statutes that govern state constables and providing funding for full-time district attorneys. An Associated Press series last year recounted examples of criminal misconduct by constables, who serve warrants and perform other duties for the state's low-level district courts.

The quick progress of budget legislation in recent days came after months of partisan debate over taxes and cuts. In recent weeks negotiators have announced two budget deals, only to have them fall apart amid recriminations and finger-pointing.

The tax rate and amount of license fees for table games such as poker and blackjack at the state's slots casinos remain sticking points.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, said a tax rate of at least 17 percent is needed to balance the budget. Those issues must still be worked out, along with the precise nature of much discussed changes to the existing slots gambling law.

How to lease state forest land for Marcellus shale natural gas extraction also has not been fully settled. House Democrats want to limit the exploration to 30,000 acres and collect at least $3,000 per acre. A Senate-passed bill put a $2,500-per-acre floor on the leases but did not set a limit on the amount of land.

Eachus said the gas leasing legislation would probably be taken up Thursday. A welfare bill also may require further negotiations.

Pennsylvania has been without a full budget in place since July 1, although a stopgap measure was passed to pay state workers and fund billions in other state spending.

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