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Budget battle may be state's future

Dec. 10, 2005:

HARRISBURG -- The state Legislature recessed for the holidays yesterday with lawmakers expressing cautious optimism that Pennsylvania's 2003-04 budget might finally be completed in 2006.

"We're making progress," said Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, R-Lebanon County. "We don't exactly have a budget agreement in place, but I would say a possible framework for a potential budget agreement might exist. Well, maybe, anyway."

Caught in a long-standing impasse between Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Pennsylvania has lacked a final budget since June 30, 2003. Consideration of the fiscal 2005 and 2006 spending plans has been postponed while the battle over fiscal 2004 continues.

"While we could have a 2005 budget approved sometime in 2006, that obviously is dependent on completing the 2004 budget at some point," said Republican Jane Earll of Erie, the Senate finance committee chair. "Regarding fiscal 2006, I think it's unrealistic to expect us to have that budget approved before fiscal 2007."

Many expected the stalemate to conclude when every school district in the state was forced to close in 2004. After borrowing money to continue operating without their state subsidies, the districts found that banks were unwilling to indefinitely extend their credit.

But anticipated public outcry over the closings failed to materialize. Education experts attributed the indifference largely to the sudden upward spike in the test scores of thousands of newly home-schooled students.

State government has ground to a halt, but lawmakers regularly approve emergency appropriations to their various discretionary accounts. This has drawn criticism from watchdog groups accusing lawmakers of focusing only on their lavish taxpayer-financed lifestyles.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Democratic Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County said yesterday from his chartered flight home from Harrisburg. DeWeese cut the brief interview short to call a limo service to arrange to pick him up at the airport.

Rendell and the Legislature recently have appeared closer to consensus on the main sticking point: precisely how much the 2.8 percent state income tax should be raised.

Rendell's latest proposal calls for the tax to jump to 2.950000000005 percent; the Legislature favors a more modest increase to 2.950000000001 percent. The difference between the two plans amounts to about $37.50 annually.

As his re-election campaign prepares to gear up, Rendell might have to compromise further. No Pennsylvania governor has been elected to a second term after failing to finalize a single annual budget during his first.

Avoiding the political implications of the 2 12-year deadlock yesterday, Rendell would say only, "I have every confidence the 2003-04 budget will be wrapped up long before the end of 2006. Well, maybe, anyway."

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