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Senator pushing for fiscal board

| Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill is backing legislation that would create a fiscal control board for Pittsburgh.

The bill, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Beechview, provides no new taxing authority for the financially strapped city but gives the board cost-cutting power. Brightbill, R-Lebanon County, is a co-sponsor.

His backing -- along with support from Democrats like Wagner and state Sen. Sean Logan, of Monroeville -- virtually ensures timely consideration for the legislation and erases almost all doubt about the outcome in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In the House yesterday, Allegheny County lawmakers unveiled a similar bill that would place Pittsburgh under a strong state control board. Under both bills, the board would approve the city's annual budgets and require a 5-year spending plan. The board also could withhold state money if the city fails to comply. The board would be in place for seven years unless the city operates in the black for three straight years.

"What we're trying to do is avoid a train wreck before it happens," Rep. Jeffrey Habay, R-Shaler, a co-sponsor, said at a news conference yesterday.

Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, another co-sponsor, said the legislation would give Pittsburgh the tools to become "a financial city of champions."

The city, which had its bond rating downgraded to junk status yesterday by Standard & Poor's, has barely enough cash to get through the end of 2003 and faces a projected $85 million deficit next year. Mayor Tom Murphy announced more than 700 layoffs in August.

The Pittsburgh Technology Council yesterday urged community leaders and legislators to support the common language for a strong control board contained in the House bill and the similar Senate bill to be announced today. The council played a key behind-the-scenes role in crafting the legislation.

Although the bills do not provide increased taxing authority for the city, which Murphy has sought since January, establishing a control board does not preclude the Legislature from considering new taxes for Pittsburgh once further spending cuts are made, said Rep. Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon.

But the Legislature's timing appears to pre-empt a task force headed by former U.S. Steel Chairman David Roderick. That group will present recommendations to legislators Saturday on what should be included in the final bailout package.

Though Roderick said committee members have yet to agree on the final set of recommendations, the package they will push will combine "spending cuts and revenue enhancement."

"It will be a multifaceted approach that makes everyone involved come to the party with their checkbooks," Roderick said. City officials can approve some "revenue enhancements" without state consent, Roderick added. He declined to comment on specific components.

The House bill provides $500,000 in state money to run the five-member control board for two years, according to Stevenson. After that the city would assume those costs, Stevenson said.

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