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Pennsylvania lawmakers aim for budget by week's end

| Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Lawmakers trickled back into the Pennsylvania Capitol for a Sunday evening start on what was shaping up as a new, contentious week, the latest round over how to end the state government's five-month-old budget stalemate.

Pressure to resolve the fight has ratcheted up amid a social services sector increasingly crippled without billions in state aid and mounting borrowing by school districts and counties that could exceed $1 billion soon, if not already.

On Sunday night, Gov. Tom Wolf's office and House leaders said they were still sorting through hundreds of pages of legislation sent by the Senate last week in a weeklong sprint to advance a $30.8 billion budget plan.

House members began their Sunday session meeting behind closed doors.

They tried to stress that they understand the pressure is on them to get a budget passed.

But both Republicans and Democrats, along with Wolf's office, are still raising problems with elements of the Senate legislation that overhaul public pension benefits, smash state control over the sale of wine and seek to advance the cause of charter schools. The last bill it passed — a 100-page education policy and school spending amendment — came up for a vote within moments of it becoming public.

“We know we've got to get a budget passed,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, after leaving a meeting with Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana. “And we're looking forward to getting it done this week.”

The broad outlines of the Senate's spending bill are supported by Wolf and House Democrats. It would be accompanied by a $1.2 billion tax increase, the details of which have not been settled or written into legislation.

The lack of a tax bill from the Senate is a key point of contention for House Republicans, some of whom say a tax increase is not necessary to balance the budget.

“Everyone's anxious to get it done,” said House Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County. “Of course, we haven't seen the tax structure from the Senate.”

Wolf's office has sought to put heat on House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and the conservative House Republican majority that has revolted against the Senate's spending and tax plans.

“Right now, they are the obstacle getting in the way of a final budget,” Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said Sunday night.

The plan arrived with a range of provisions that were drawing objections from House Republicans, House Democrats and Wolf's office.

Wolf has demanded a tax increase to deliver a record boost to public school aid — and help wipe out deep education funding cuts in 2011 — while meeting counties' requests for an increase in social services aid and narrowing a long-term budget deficit.

The Senate's budget plan met those goals. But it also brought surprises.

The governor's office said it had insisted that a provision affecting the creation of a federally required state plan for reducing carbon emissions from power plants not appear in a massive spending-related bill. It showed up anyway.

House Democrats were unhappy over provisions that could lead to the rapid growth of charter schools in Philadelphia, with no end to it or ability to review the effectiveness of new charter schools that result. House Republicans complained about proposed cuts in reimbursements to cyber-charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Senate's massive pension bill lacked an independent actuarial note — something that is otherwise required by Pennsylvania law on legislation affecting pension systems.

Another provision raised eyebrows in the education community and left them wondering from where it emerged. It would require the Department of Education to provide online math tutoring to public school students in grades 3-8 and train teachers to promote its use.

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