Pa. budget talks continue, but 'no deal yet'

Posted: July 06, 2007

HARRISBURG - By this evening, the Rendell administration and legislative leaders had spent four hours in budget talks and were preparing for more, but had not reached a compromise that would avert a partial government shutdown scheduled for Monday.

"We are making progress," said a succinct House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) at about 7 o'clock. "No deal yet."

By then, most of the 25,000 state workers who had received furlough notices days earlier had wrapped up their workweek and were heading into a weekend of uncertainty, not knowing whether they will be back at work Monday morning.

The Rendell administration had told the workers, deemed "non-critical," not to come to work on Monday unless the budget impasse was resolved. That would force the closure of many services and facilities, from state parks, drivers' license centers, and the five Pennsylvania casinos.

About 52,000 employees deemed essential to public safety and health, from state police to welfare caseworkers, would remain on the job.

The House spent several hours today debating one of the governor's budget prerequisites: a statewide smoking ban. But the chamber broke off discussions at 7 p.m. with a vote on the measure still days away.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's largest state employee union said today that it planned to file a lawsuit to block the threatened furloughs.

The lawsuit by Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will challenge the legality of dividing most state workers' jobs into "critical" and "non-critical" classifications, said David Fillman, the union's executive director.

A separate filing with the same court indicated how testy the budget divide has become.

Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie) asked Commonwealth Court this afternoon to compel two Rendell cabinet secretaries to testify before a committee examining the pending casino closings.

On Thursday, the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee issued subpoenas ordering Office of Administration Secretary Joseph Martz and Revenue Secretary Thomas Wolf to answer questions today. The two were unavailable, the administration said, until Wednesday.

That's too late, said Earll, noting that casinos were to close at 7 a.m. Monday if no budget accord was reached.

"To have to go through all of these hoops just to get answers to questions, we are escalating this into a stratosphere that is completely unnecessary," she said.

The budget standoff also sparked a public relations war late today as the Rendell administration flooded reporters' e-mail boxes with news releases defending his efforts and listing the vast array of government services affected by the furlough, from black-fly spraying to the closure of the Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site, to fingerprint checks for school employees.

House Republicans responded with a newscast-style video posted on YouTube, urging viewers "tired of the game-playing and stall tactics" to call the governor's hotline.

At the heart of the impasse is Rendell's insistence that the General Assembly pass several of his initiatives, including new health-care policies and increased highway and mass-transit funding, before he will sign a budget package.

Senate Republicans, who control the chamber 29-21, have taken tentative steps toward many of the governor's proposals, but remain opposed to Rendell's call for surcharges on electric bills as part of his energy independence strategy.

Meetings between Rendell's top aides and leaders from both parties in both chambers spanned the Capitol.

A morning session was held in DeWeese's offices. In the afternoon, they met in the governor's suite. At 9 p.m., negotiators were expected to be on Senate Republican turf.

"We have not reached a deal; however, we are encouraged by the progress that has been made thus far," Chuck Ardo, the governor's spokesman, said after the afternoon meeting. He would not discuss details of the talks.

Earlier in the week, Rendell has said that he could call off the furloughs as late as Sunday night if a compromise appeared imminent. The governor also has said that he was open to considering a temporary funding bill that would prevent the government shutdown.

Rep. Ronald Buxton (D., Dauphin) introduced such a stopgap measure today.

"While the budget negotiations continue with the General Assembly and the governor, it is important that our state employees are not used as bargaining chips or pawns during this stalemate," he said.


Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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