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State misses budget deadline -- again

| Saturday, July 1, 2006

HARRISBURG - The General Assembly on Friday failed its job spelled out in the state Constitution: passing a balanced budget by June 30.

In a year when the Legislature is under a microscope because of the legislative pay raise fiasco, conventional wisdom held that lawmakers would, if nothing else, get the budget done on time. There are no penalties for blowing the deadline -- midnight Friday -- but some say it's a symbolic failure for the nation's largest full-time Legislature of 253 members.

Approval of a $26 billion state spending plan is expected today or Sunday.

"It's something they're supposed to do. It's not something that's too much to ask for," said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Borick said he doubts it will matter much to voters by November's legislative elections. But, he said,"It contributes to the overall diminished stature of the Legislature in Pennsylvania. These things add up."

"It's just expected," said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "The public thinks this is just business-as-usual. It's just one more reason people think they need to reduce the size of the Legislature to get something done."

Missing the deadline is nothing new.

The state budget has been late the past three years under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who has been at odds at times with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The last budget approved by the June 30 deadline was in 2002 under Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker.

Too much of the media attention on late budgets is focused on the Legislature, and not the governor and his "lack of leadership," said House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin.

When asked how taxpayers might react to a missed deadline for the fourth year in a row, Rendell said at a news conference: "Will all of the media raise your hands• That's about the sum of people in the commonwealth who care whether a budget gets done by June the 30th."

Lenny Alcivar, spokesman for Rendell's Republican opponent Lynn Swann, called that a "jaw-dropping statement" from an incumbent campaigning on his experience and stewardship of state finances.

It's proof of "how broken things are in Harrisburg," Alcivar said.

It's not as if lawmakers and Rendell this year were squabbling over how to raise money. The toughest decision they faced was how to spend a $720 million surplus.

Last July's now-repealed pay raise for lawmakers, judges and state administrators led to the defeat of a Supreme Court justice in November and 17 incumbent legislators in the May primary. How the Legislature passed the pay raise -- in the middle of the night, skirting a Constitutional prohibition on mid-term raises -- angered people as much as the raises themselves.

Russ Diamond, a pay raise opponent now trying to get on the ballot as an independent candidate for governor, said if the General Assembly misses its deadline by "one minute, it's the same as passing (a budget) six months late. You didn't do your job."

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