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Business leaders to join talks on city fiscal relief plan

| Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- State lawmakers and business leaders will meet Friday to consider a proposal that would require spending cuts by Pittsburgh before the Legislature allows the city to impose new or increased taxes.

"We're coming to a consensus," Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, said Tuesday. "We intend to meet next with the business community." The meeting with corporate leaders is scheduled for Downtown Pittsburgh.

New tax revenue for Pittsburgh isn't on the radar screen, said Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Beechview, who is leading the effort with Orie to fashion a bipartisan bill.

Orie, Wagner and Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, are pushing for legislation that would:

  • Create a strong budget control board for Pittsburgh with the power to make reductions in spending.

  • Establish the five-member board -- and see spending cuts enacted -- before passing legislation for new or increased taxing authority.

    "I'd like to see the oversight board set up and force the hand of the mayor" to cut spending, Logan said. He envisions the board enacting the spending cuts recommended by several panels that studied Pittsburgh finances. More importantly, the control board would provide hard numbers on the city's finances.

    "We never can get real numbers from the city," Logan said.

    Once agreement is reached on a control board, the bill is expected to move rapidly through the Republican-controlled Senate.

    Local House Republicans also are working on a control board bill to require spending cuts and combining services with the county. It also would require more openness in city finances, such as monthly financial statements by the city and semiannual audited statements.

    Orie also is pitching county-city department mergers to save money. Business leaders want the legislation to compel a study for a long-range merger of city and county governments.

    The effort led by Orie and Wagner comes in the aftermath of Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's stalled effort to win legislative authority for new and higher taxes. Orie last week declared the Murphy-backed bill dead on arrival.

    The Murphy bill had called for an 0.45 percent tax on the payrolls of for-profit businesses and a $42 increase in the annual $10 occupational privilege tax to help close a projected $40 million deficit this year. It also called for a review board, but several lawmakers considered the board too weak.

    The Allegheny County Senate delegation met in Harrisburg yesterday. There are still differences over what should be in the plan, senators said.

    Wagner called the discussion among the senators "a healthy meeting."

    "There is a unified position to provide bipartisan leadership to save the city of Pittsburgh," Wagner said.

    Logan still favors eliminating exemptions to the city's business privilege tax granted to banks, investment companies, utilities and manufacturers -- a proposal Murphy previously championed without success.

    Gov. Ed Rendell yesterday called the Legislature's delay in providing fiscal relief for Pittsburgh intolerable.

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