Capital buzz not about budget
HARRISBURG — By the stroke of midnight Sunday, state lawmakers must approve and Gov. Tom Corbett must sign a state budget, but few of the lobbyists, aides or politicians swirling throughout the Capitol on Saturday were even talking about a spending plan.
Instead, attention centered on privatizing wine and spirits sales, reforming state pensions, increasing funding for transportation and expanding Medicaid coverage.
“In the 16 years I have worked here, I have never seen the General Fund budget draw less attention,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.
“I think the scale of the other issues being considered has something to do with that, but it also reflects the undeniable fact that tax revenues are still very tight,” Arneson said.
Senate committees worked Saturday to set up the budget and related fiscal bills for a final vote, Arneson said.
Legislative staff and Corbett aides continued to meet to negotiate a $28.3 billion spending plan that would not raise taxes.
“We're in ongoing budget negotiations, and things are looking very positive,” said Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett.
“We're ready to go,” said state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City. “Honestly, I'm feeling really good right now. I think we're on the path.”
The budget plan is expected to increase basic education funding by about $100 million and to continue the phase-out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax on businesses, but not eliminate it next year as planned under current state law. Business groups have pressed state officials to eliminate the tax. The slowdown would continue to provide the state with needed revenue.
A dramatic showdown over two of Corbett's top priorities is expected to play out on Sunday in a race against the clock, lobbyists, staffers and analysts say. The Republican-controlled Senate, eager to approve new transportation revenue, has a partial liquor privatization bill that it seems to be holding back until the GOP-controlled House moves a transportation bill.
Though leaders have denied a trade-off, “there's enough members on the record to indicate there has to be (one),” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.
The Senate liquor bill doesn't go nearly as far as the House wants in eliminating state stores and ending the state's wholesale monopoly.
“It's under careful review,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said. Turzai, who favors a complete privatization of wholesale and retail sales, did not reject the Senate measure out of hand.
The full Senate amended the privatization bill early Saturday. The amendment needs to go back to the Senate Appropriations Committee for approval and to the full Senate for passage. It expands private sales of liquor and wine, but is not definitive on a date for closure of 600 state-controlled liquor stores.
The looming June 30 deadline comes into play not only because of the Sunday midnight constitutional requirement to approve a state budget — but because of the timing of the pending transportation and liquor bills.
About 60 amendments may be offered Saturday night on the $2 billion House transportation bill, a more modest plan than the Senate's $2.5 billion bill. When debate in the House ends, the chamber must wait 24 hours to bring it up for a final vote.
The timely budget requirement helps leaders leverage action on other issues, but Madonna said he sees no reason the General Assembly couldn't stay Monday and Tuesday, if needed, to finish its work.
A wild card in the mix: a Senate bill to establish controls on Medicaid expansion. It needs full Senate approval. Turzai has said he won't call a vote on Medicaid expansion in the House.
“I am troubled and perplexed as well as disappointed that we are even considering (Medicaid) expansion,” said House Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga County.
“Even if these conditions are met, you're relying on the federal promise (of funding),” said Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont. He said he believes the federal government will leave state taxpayers holding the bag.
Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats, said he believes the budget is agreed to in large part, but about 32 hours before the deadline, his members have not seen spreadsheets or legislative language showing that budget agreement.
“We've been consulted on a small number of discrete matters, but we have not been in the room when (Republicans) have been deciding what will be in the budget,” Patton said.
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