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Lawmakers pledge to skip swanky Pennsylvania Society gala in NYC if budget deal not struck

| Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 10:50 p.m.

HARRISBURG — If there's no ironclad budget deal by the second week of December, many state legislative leaders and other lawmakers say they will skip the annual Pennsylvania Society gala in Manhattan, the premier political event for Pennsylvania politicians.

Lawmakers don't want to be spotted partying at swanky hotel receptions while schools and nonprofits struggle to stay afloat without state funding during a budget stalemate that reached its 146th day Monday. The New York City gala culminates with a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, this year honoring former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell on Dec. 12.

Preschool centers run by small nonprofits have closed or are planning to do so shortly. Assistance programs that address issues including mental health, domestic violence and homelessness have been impacted by the impasse, but many are pursuing loans and grants.

Marc Cherna, Allegheny County's director of human services, said the budget impasse is delaying $35 million a month that should be going to county-contracted domestic violence shelters, aging services, and children and youth programs.

“Every day we're getting more agencies coming in saying, ‘We can't make payroll,' ” Cherna said.

The New York event will go on, and “robust” attendance is expected, said Carol Fitzgerald, the society's executive director.

Even if state legislators don't attend, or if they are in Harrisburg voting on a budget, they make up only a slice of the total attendees, who range from business leaders, lobbyists, union leaders, lawyers, members of Congress and trade association officials.

Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate and state row office races likely will be the focus of much of the buzz.

“I do not see how any member can attend when our work is not complete,” said state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. He said he might reconsider if the budget work is done.

“Nobody should be compensated for partying at the Waldorf Astoria while holding Pennsylvania kids, schools and the needy hostage,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a state government reform group.

No tax dollars will be spent by attendees, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana. Legislators are still being paid; however, more than a dozen are declining pay checks until the budget impasse is resolved.

Miskin acknowledged that attending without a budget deal in place “would definitely appear insensitive.”

“If the budget isn't done, I don't anticipate (Reed) going,” Miskin said.

What constitutes a “done” deal is subject to debate: It could be a handshake among leaders of four legislative caucuses and the governor, passage of a budget bill or approval of all budget-related bills.

Republican leaders and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, have said they are “close to a framework” on a budget. The framework included hundreds of millions of dollars more for public schools; raising the sales tax from 6 to 7.25 percent in most counties and 8.25 percent in Allegheny County for school property tax reduction; and pension reform. Not included so far is a deal on liquor privatization, the top priority of House Republicans.

The House and Senate are in session Monday through Wednesday. Once a deal is reached, legislative staffers say it will take about two weeks to move all the parts between both chambers to the governor's desk.

Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said “I'd be very, very surprised if it is passed by then (second weekend in December.) Is there a chance they'll have an agreement? Yes. We'll have to see.

“The sales tax (increase) is very much up in the air,” he said. “There is some coalescing on pensions.”

Whether Wolf attends the Pennsylvania Society “is a decision he will make at the time,” said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan. The only event he plans to attend, Sheridan said, is the dinner honoring Rendell, his former boss when Wolf was Revenue secretary. “I don't know that he will stay over,” Sheridan said.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, will decide closer to the time of the event, depending on the budget situation, said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

The chamber throws a morning reception Dec. 11 honoring GOP legislative leaders. “(Canceling is) certainly something we're looking at,” Barr said. “But we may decide to go ahead with it because, for us, it's a chance to see our members,” he said.

Larry Ceisler, principal of Ceisler Media and Issues Advocacy, throws a “big party” on the night before the annual dinner. Unlike some others, it's open, he said. Some on the governor's staff want to attend, but they need a bill for the cost of attendance, because Wolf's staffers are under a gift ban.

As a public relations adviser, Ceisler said the problem with a leader or Wolf attending receptions with no budget deal in place comes down to optics. Being photographed eating oysters and drinking champagne while pre-schools are closing is not good PR or good politics.

But “if the governor and legislative leaders were away from Harrisburg,” Ceisler said, “they might have a chance of working out a budget.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com. Natasha Lindstrom contributed to this report.

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