HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The wheels of budget-making ground slowly Monday, as legislative staff aides worked to write more than a dozen bills that reflect a three-day-old budget compromise and settle numerous disagreements over the details.
Final votes are not anticipated this week, and most
rank-and-file legislators have not yet been briefed on the nearly
$28 billion agreement that was announced Friday night and is now
more than 80 days late.
"It's really been limited access to information and I think
that's probably the case with most of the rank and file," said
Rep. Nick Kotik, the Allegheny County Democrat who helped organize
the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House. "I don't
know what their timeframe is, so it's really up in the air."
The agreement, which still requires legislative approval, would
help fill last year's multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall by
raising money from legalizing table games at the state's
slot-machine casinos and leasing more state forest land for natural
gas exploration. Overall spending would be cut by about 1 percent,
while the state income tax and sales tax rates would remain the
The deal would apply the state sales tax to tickets for
performing arts events, concerts, cultural sites, zoos and parks,
and impose a 20 percent tax on the small games of chance
fundraisers operated by nonprofit organizations, such as volunteer
fire departments and veterans' groups, that also hold liquor
Some details remain under wraps.
For instance, officials have not released a program-by-program
look at how all the money would be spent, and Senate Majority
Leader Dominic Pileggi, R- Delaware, said budget-makers are still
discussing how to spend approximately $100 million.
A spokesman for House Democratic Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne,
said a sticking point is the Senate's insistence on including money
for grants - known colloquially as "WAMs," for walking-around
money - that legislators can direct to favored causes.
In the last six months of 2008 alone, an Associated Press review
found that legislators requested more than $110 million in grants
from at least a half-dozen executive branch agencies.
But including money for the grants cannot be justified in a year
in which money is scarce for crucial social services, such as child
welfare and children's health insurance, spokesman Brett Marcy
A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow,
D-Lackawanna, responded that no significant issues are holding up
the budget's passage, while a Pileggi spokesman said nothing is
under consideration that could be fairly characterized as a WAM.
Legalizing table games will prove to be thorny. Top legislators
have not settled on a tax rate or a state licensing fee, and the
state's slot-machine casino owners are applying pressure to keep
those costs low.
Some Democrats continue to register their unhappiness over the
expansion of natural gas exploration on state forest land.
And Kotik and others complained about the tax on small games of
chance, saying it will generate hours of paperwork for
organizations that are staffed by volunteers to come up with the
relatively small amount of $20 million.
"I just don't see the rationale," Kotik said. "There had to
be a better way of coming up with that money."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)