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Lawmakers set for long haul over state budget

| Sunday, July 4, 2004

HARRISBURG -- State lawmakers braced for a marathon session Saturday, three days past Wednesday's deadline for passing a state budget, as Gov. Ed Rendell and legislative leaders worked toward agreement on a plan to spend roughly $23 billion in the new fiscal year.

The Senate was expected to consider the budget bill first, and members began their session around 8:30 p.m. but took a break shortly thereafter for Democrats and Republicans to meet in party caucuses. Legislative staffers did not expect a vote for several hours.

"The governor's obsession with a massive gambling expansion unquestionably has slowed the process, but things do now appear to be on track for resolution before the chambers recess tonight," said Erik Arneson, an aide to Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, R-Lebanon.

The Senate approved a bill early Friday to legalize slot machines and a companion bill early yesterday to enable school districts to reduce property taxes with the revenue -- measures Rendell has insisted on before signing a budget.

Few budget details were immediately available, although legislative staffers familiar with the negotiations said it would include $200 million in education block grants to help school districts improve the math and reading scores of struggling students. That is more than the $175 million Rendell and lawmakers earmarked for the block grants in December, but less than the $250 million that Rendell requested in his budget address to the Legislature in February.

"This is a historic investment in education," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.

The budget also was expected to include additional education money for poor school districts, districts experiencing rapid enrollment growth, and state-licensed private schools that educate severely disabled children.

Rendell's spokeswoman, Kate Philips, declined to comment on the budget, other than to say negotiators "continue to make good progress."

Rendell did not seek any tax increases for the budget because much of the new spending is offset by the increases in taxes on income, telephone usage and cigarettes included in a December compromise to complete the budget for the fiscal year that ended Wednesday. The state also ended the last fiscal year with a $637 million surplus, according to the Department of Revenue.

The governor and legislative leaders were also mulling whether they could devise a mutually acceptable plan to clean up blight and halt suburban sprawl. Rendell had proposed a November ballot question seeking approval for $800 million in borrowing, which would have been financed with higher waste-hauling fees, but both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have balked at the idea.

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