Rendell orders partial Pa. shutdown

Posted: July 09, 2007

HARRISBURG - The furlough of thousands of state workers and the curtailment of many state services went into effect at 12:01 a.m. today. However, the Commonwealth Court quickly issued a preliminary injunction to keep casinos open until a hearing could be held tomorrow morning.

Gov. Rendell announced the action at literally the eleventh hour - 11:20 last night - ending a day of speculation about what today would bring in Pennsylvania.

While apologizing to state workers and residents for the action, the first furloughs in recent history, Rendell said he hoped that it was only a one-day situation. He said meetings would resume today between his office and key legislative leaders to try to reach an agreement.

"One of the reasons that we didn't get it done was that we didn't start early enough," Rendell said. "I'm sorry. Maybe I didn't push hard enough. I thought I did."

A shutdown means about 25,000 workers are temporarily laid off, but the state's five slots casinos will be open at least one more day. Shutting the casinos would cost Pennsylvania $1.7 million a day in lost revenue.

Most state offices and parks will be closed.

Roughly 52,000 employees in "critical" jobs with the state police, the National Guard, prison and parole offices, veterans services, and health and welfare departments will continue to work.

Senate and House Republican leaders early today said they were outraged that the furloughs had been ordered. "We look at this as a serious setback," said Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson). He said numerous issues remained to be settled.

Earlier last evening, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) said "shuttle diplomacy" was going on for most of the day among his caucus, Senate Republicans and Rendell's office.

Senate Republican leaders, who hold a majority in that chamber, and have been unmoved in their pledge to hold down spending and impose no new taxes, were the most optimistic.

Rendell has maintained that he would not consider the budget until agreement was reached on his other budget priorities, including energy, mass transit and highway funding and a statewide ban on smoking in most public places.

House and Senate Republicans have urged Rendell to free the budget to move through the General Assembly, with the understanding that lawmakers will take up the other issues later this summer or in the fall.

It came down to one nonnegotiable item on both sides late yesterday: a $5.40 surcharge on residential electric bills to support an $850 million fund for alternative and renewable energy.

Republicans have dug in their heels on what they see as a new tax on homeowners and businesses. Rendell has held his ground, seeking to use a prime leverage point to get a key budget initiative, which he says will lower energy costs in the long run, through the legislature.

A group of suburban Philadelphia Republicans, whose votes on the energy bill are critical, took a stand amid the negotiations yesterday to urge the governor and Democratic colleagues who control the House to approve the state budget and take up the environmental issue later.

"The energy policy should not be holding these people hostage," said Bill Adolph (R., Delaware) at an impromptu news conference outside the governor's office. "We have a $650 million surplus. There is no budget crisis."

Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery), who has supported and sponsored environmental legislation in the past, said lawmakers needed more time to study a complex proposal. "It is irresponsible to rush through a halfbaked energy plan when you can do the budget without it," she said.

Democrats countered that the governor's energy plan has been circulating for several months. "At some point you have to put up a vote, and that some point is now," said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery).

Far less of an issue in the final hours before the furlough was to take effect was the $27.3 billion spending plan for fiscal 2007-2008. While Senate Republicans have sought millions in cuts to several of Rendell's job training and education programs, both sides say with a $650 million surplus they should be able to reach agreement.

Among the state entities that will be closed: 71 driver's license centers and 15 welcome centers, along with 117 state parks and historic sites.

The state Health Department will suspend some services such as processing requests for birth and death certificates, but employees at state-operated mental health hospitals and mental retardation centers will remain on duty.

County assistance offices will remain open to serve low-income individuals and families, and caseworkers will be available during business hours to help determine eligibility and provide program and service information.

Meanwhile, the largest state workers' union failed in their last-minute efforts to have a state court intervene to avert the furloughs.

Commonwealth Court has scheduled a hearing today on a suit filed by Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 16,000 workers. The union is challenging the legality of dividing most state workers' jobs into "critical" and "noncritical" classifications.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.


Working, Not Working

A look at how the budget impasse will affect state services.

Functioning

  • Inspections for food and animal safety.
  • Slot-machine casinos, pending a court hearing.
  • Processing of birth and death certificates.
  • Health care for the poor, food stamps, and cash assistance.
  • Drinking-water inspections.
  • Inspections of hospitals and nursing homes.
  • State police patrols.
  • Unemployment compensation and workers' compensation.
  • Liquor stores.
  • Lottery.
Not Functioning
  • Permitting for mining and oil- and gas-well drilling.
  • State park campgrounds.
  • Driver's license offices.
  • Grant programs.
  • Civil-service testing.
  • Museums and historic sites.
  • Highway occupancy permits.
SOURCES: Governor's Office, Associated Press

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