Final budget slog slowed by openness

Posted: July 14, 2007

HARRISBURG - Five days after the hard-fought budget deal was reached between Gov. Rendell and Senate Republicans - and almost two weeks into the new fiscal year - Pennsylvania still has no spending plan in place.

The process to get from that agreement to a final budget and the governor's signature has been slowed by the higher level of public scrutiny, said legislators. "Democracy," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), when asked what was holding up the budget's passage. "Everyone wants to be served, but nobody wants to know what's going on in the kitchen" when it comes to the small details.

Under House rules approved as part of the new move toward openness and accountability in the legislature, a 24-hour waiting period is required for consideration of amended bills. The Senate can work more quickly but under less scrutiny with only a six-hour rule.

As a result, Gov. Rendell may not have a budget to sign until at least Monday and perhaps as late as a week from then.

Under the deal, Senate Republicans got no new taxes and a lower rate of spending, while Gov. Rendell got most of his top programs funded, and legislative promises to consider several controversial energy and health bills in a special session this fall.

All parties say they are confident the agreement on the $27.4 billion spending plan will hold even if it takes another few days, or even a week, to reach the governor's desk.

"No one can afford not to have the deal go through," said Evans, who as chairman of the House Majority Appropriations Committee is guiding the budget negotiations expected to continue through the weekend.

Rendell administration officials said yesterday they had a solution to one budget stumbling block involving environmental program funding. Under the plan, Rendell would use $40 million a year from a state land-preservation fund to support a hazardous-waste cleanup program. But critics said Rendell's proposal is no better than the current Senate Republican proposal to divert millions from a fund that supports parks and libraries to cover hazardous-waste removal.

Throughout the week, bipartisan working groups have been tackling various elements of the budget, from multi-billion-dollar education-funding bills to grants for local community projects totaling as little as a few thousand dollars.

Among the not-so-minor details is the final amount appropriated for "legislative add-ons" - a controversial pool of money, now standing at about $370 million, that is divvied up by the four legislative caucuses for local projects.

In what has become an annual ritual, Rendell strips the funding for these legislative grants from the budget, the legislature reinstates it and the two sides wrestle over the final amount.

Senate Republicans said the overall budget process is complicated by the hundreds of small decisions that have to be made.

"Fleshing out takes time," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "There are no major hiccups."

Rendell's spokesman said the governor's legislative team also is engaged in the discussions with General Assembly leaders.

"It's difficult to predict the pace at which negotiations will proceed," said Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo. "The T's are being crossed and the I's dotted."

After a House and Senate conference committee reaches agreement on the budget and five budget-related bills, the General Assembly will vote on each piece of legislation covering transportation and education - both higher education and basic education - the tax code and the budget itself.

The budget agreement brokered late Monday night ended a weeks-long standoff that climaxed when 24,000 state workers were furloughed for a day.

When asked at a news conference Tuesday whether the additional time for negotiations this year would encourage more tampering by lawmakers in the budget process, Rendell said: "We will be watching closely."

At the same time, Ardo said, Rendell will be "keeping a pen handy to sign the budget when it's completed."


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

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