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Poor-mouthing for the 'Burgh

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 7:21 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- The General Assembly last year attempted to resolve three issues before adjourning for the summer: approving a state budget, legalizing slot machines and resolving Pittsburgh's fiscal crisis.

The budget did not pass until December and slots, as well as a solution for Pittsburgh, are still pending.

The same mix of issues will likely dominate the General Assembly's calendar as lawmakers push to resolve controversial issues before the June 30 recess. Dominate is, perhaps, too strong of a word for Pittsburgh's woes. Mayor Tom Murphy's efforts to drum up support for authorizing higher taxes in Pittsburgh were barely a blip on the radar screen last year.

This June could be different. A state oversight board created by the Legislature will report back with recommendations on where Pittsburgh should cut spending -- and if those cuts are made - whether new state taxing authority for the city should be approved.

Strings attached

A recommendation for new city revenue is more likely than not. But it would be in the context of the city changing its wasteful spending practices -- not the virtual handout sought by Murphy last year.

But action on Pittsburgh will face tough competition with budget and slots once again crowding the agenda.

The budget is expected to be far less contentious than last year. Legalizing slots to provide property tax rebates is as much of a gamble as ever. You might see action before June. Or it may never happen at all. If it is considered concurrently with the budget, there's little doubt that lawmakers will want enormous concessions from Gov. Ed Rendell on the spending plan (read record levels of WAMs -- Walking Around Money -- for lawmakers' pet projects.)

Some political observers believe the high water mark for slots occurred last December when it appeared that differing versions of House and Senate bills might be resolved.

So the outlook on action for Pittsburgh is in some ways no different from last June.

It's entirely possible that the oversight board's recommendations could be put off until the fall. The budget eats up an enormous chunk of time in June. The Legislature typically returns to session in mid-September.

Then with a general election around the corner, action on anything remotely construed as a Pittsburgh "bailout" - even one tied to spending cuts - would probably be shelved.

Lame-duck land

That could put off consideration of Pittsburgh's fiscal dilemma until the lame duck session. The lame duck session takes place in the few waning weeks of November, after the election. It's called lame duck because lawmakers who have been defeated or are retiring are casting their final votes without fear of political repercussions.

Pittsburgh's revenue picture is not nearly as bleak as the crisis portrayed by Murphy, according to the oversight board's report of last week. It will be December or early January before Pittsburgh is down to $4 million or $5 million. Last year, city officials had predicted the city would run out of cash by the end of year.

Obviously that wasn't the case.

Action on Pittsburgh's future, if delayed until late November, would be cutting it close. But given that the situation is not as bad as that portrayed by the mayor, consideration of the oversight board's report might wait until late November without serious consequences for the city.

Especially if it cuts spending.

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