Budget mess may mean 'real trouble soon,'

Budget mess may mean 'real trouble soon,'

HARRISBURG — The Senate returned to the State Capitol early Monday afternoon with good intentions: to consider various bills related to the still-incomplete state budget.

But by day’s end, the chamber had canceled committee meetings planned to start moving those bills along the legislative pipeline. And though senators are expected to return Tuesday, it is unclear what exactly they will be doing once they convene.

It is all part of the continued uncertainty surrounding the nearly $32 billion spending bill the GOP-controlled legislature sent to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, hours before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. He let it become law, though there is still no agreement on how to pay for it.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania government continues to operate without a balanced budget, raising a host of questions about whether it violates the constitutional mandate that any spending plan must be bolstered by a revenue package.

Senate Republican leaders remained publicly optimistic, continuing to say they are near a deal with their House counterparts and the governor on many of the key sticking points, including a plan for expanding gambling in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, told reporters Monday that having members in the Capitol created a more conducive atmosphere for breaking the stalemate.

“I was just afraid that if we’re all sitting at home, we’re not going to get an agreement,” Mr. Corman said. “And I think sometimes it’s good to have the members home, and sometimes it’s good to have them here to try to put pressure on the process to get it done. And, sitting at home, I think, would have lengthened this considerably, so that’s why we’re here.”

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders are sticking to being firmly noncommittal on the question of progress — and the House, as of Monday afternoon, had no plans to call the chamber back into session this week.

“Conversations are happening,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin, “but the reality is there are no agreements. And there won’t be until everything is agreed to.”

On his way to a meeting with House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, on Monday, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. R-Jefferson. said that all sides had talked over the weekend and had made “incremental progress.”

He did say, however, that all sides are nearing agreement on gambling expansion, including a plan to create up to 10 satellite casinos across the state. Currently 12 casinos offering slots and table games are operating in Pennsylvania.

It would not, Mr. Scarnati said, include provisions to legalize slots-style machines called video-gaming terminals (VGTs) in bars and restaurants. That idea is being pushed hard by House Republicans.

In working toward a deal on revenues, legislative Republicans have rejected the idea of raising so-called broad-based taxes such as the personal income and sales tax. They have also said they oppose imposing a new tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, though Pennsylvania is the only major energy-producing state that doesn’t tax extraction. (Drillers in the state do pay a fee on wells they drill, with much of the money raised going back to the communities where the wells are located.)

Instead, they have looked for other ways to plug a $1.5 billion shortfall in last fiscal year’s budget, as well as a projected $700 million deficit in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Aside from expanding gambling, negotiators have discussed borrowing up to $1.5 billion and, possibly, further privatizing the sale of wine and hard liquor.