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House defies Rendell by approving budget

| Friday, March 7, 2003

HARRISBURG - With unprecedented speed, the Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's bare-bones state budget that bridges a projected $2.4 billion state deficit without raising taxes on most Pennsylvanians.

It's a $21 billion budget that Rendell unveiled Tuesday, said he hates and asked lawmakers not to approve. House passage by a 113-84 margin occurred just two days after Rendell introduced the plan. Rendell had asked lawmakers to wait until after March 25, when he announces his broader spending package that will likely include a tax increase. The budget doesn't need to be balanced until June 30.

The austere budget, which cuts money to several state agencies and local programs, now goes to the Republican Senate, where a vote is expected Wednesday.

The budget increases state spending by 1.3 percent. There appears to be a consensus to support the budget among Senate Republicans, said Erik Arneson, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, a Lebanon County Republican.

If the Senate follows suit, it would be the quickest budget passage in recent history. Rendell initially said he would sign the budget, but he said yesterday he won't decide until the Senate sends him the bill.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, said his advice to Rendell would be, "Absolutely, veto it."

The move by Republicans "made a mockery of the budget process," Frankel said. The budget process typically takes place over six months, from the time the governor introduces a budget proposal until the Legislature passes the spending program in June.

Rendell, who was elected in November, decided on the unique approach of submitting his budget in two steps. The second part later this month is Rendell's ambitious plan to boost state money for education, achieve greater equity between rich and poor school districts, reduce property taxes by 30 percent and launch a massive economic development program.

The overall plan would be paid for with a state bond issue, legalizing slot machines at horse tracks and, according to Rendell, the probability of increasing state taxes.

"Yeah, it (tax hike) is probably likely," the governor said yesterday.

House Majority Leader John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, told lawmakers that voting against Rendell's first budget was a vote for an eventual tax increase. House Democrats -- and Rendell -- complained that Republican leaders had choked off amendments, debate and any attempt for the appropriations panel to review the plan in detail.

"I'm disappointed in the House action approving this budget in 48 hours," Rendell said. "First and foremost, the process is all wrong. The process is inappropriate. The process is not democracy in action."

Interest groups facing cuts should have had the opportunity to be heard, Rendell said. That was the idea behind Rendell's two-part budget plan.

"The people of Pennsylvania are sick of the rabid partisanship that exists here," he said.

Enactment of Rendell's first budget, said Rep. Tom Stevenson, a Mt. Lebanon Republican, "will weaken his efforts to have programs he promised during the campaign enacted into law."

Rendell went further, saying "With a budget passed, what leverage do I have?"

The budget would eliminate $5.5 million in state aid for Allegheny County law enforcement, cut the University of Pittsburgh's state money by 5 percent and the Port Authority of Allegheny County's state aid by 6 percent.

The budget does not include $1.2 million in state aid sought by Pittsburgh or an additional $500,000 sought for River Rescue. The city could be hurt by early passage of a budget in terms of getting some direct assistance, Frankel said. The city also is seeking $6 million in pension help from the state in a separate bill, but that was expected to be part of the larger budget debate.

"This is obviously a very difficult budget year for the state, and we look forward to continuing to work with the governor and the Legislature," said Craig Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy.

Lawmakers said a broader fiscal solution for the city of Pittsburgh is expected to be considered later. It might come wrapped in discussions over a supplemental appropriations bill, Stevenson said. Supplemental appropriations bills essentially are attempts to amend the budget.

Rendell's task force on Pittsburgh finances is expected to release its report later this month.

Now, "I'm not sure there's anything to address until we see some movement (by Pittsburgh) in getting its fiscal house in order," said state Rep. Mike Turzai, a McCandless Republican.

Responding to Democratic lawmakers' charges of ramming the bill through at lightning speed, Turzai said that action keeps "hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists from coming in with their hand open for more increases."

Eight House Democrats -- including state Rep. Michael Diven, a South Side Democrat -- joined Republicans in voting for Rendell's budget. Diven could not be reached for comment.

Republican leaders said they will consider all of Rendell's second-phase spending proposals. With a budget approved, the proposals can be considered in "a crisis-free atmosphere," Arneson said.

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