Weekend deadline nears for Pa. budget, roads and wine sales

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HARRISBURG -- A weekend deadline inched closer Tuesday with little visible progress on transportation funding or liquor privatization bills, while the prospects for pension reform seemed to hinge on a developing cost analysis.

Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett continued meeting in private to discuss the state budget, due Sunday, and initiatives on pension reform, infrastructure funding and allowing private sales of wine and liquor. Senate leaders postponed consideration of the budget bill in committee as talks continued.

Discussion proceeded as well on a Senate Republican effort, applauded by Democrats in that chamber, to vote this week on expanding Medicaid eligibility in Pennsylvania under the federal health care law. But dozens of House Republicans held a news conference to oppose broadening eligibility, with Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, saying Medicaid expansion was "off the table at this point."

With a Senate transportation proposal in the House, and a House liquor plan, now amended, in the Senate, Republican leaders in each chamber looked for changes that would allow the bills to move. Mr. Corbett has asked that both measures, along with pension reform, reach his desk by Sunday.

In the House, Republicans worked behind the scenes on yet another version of legislation to increase funding for roads, bridges, public transit and other transportation modes. The proposal offered Monday by Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford and chairman of the Transportation Committee, sharply reduced new spending, particularly on transit, compared with a bill passed by the Senate in a bipartisan 45-5 vote this month. Mr. Hess' proposal was quickly panned by Democrats.

Mr. Hess said late Tuesday he was working on another version that could be voted on by the committee this morning. "Hopefully, we'll have a product that will serve everybody's purposes and serve the people of Pennsylvania," he said. He said he believed there was a "better than 50-50" chance of getting a transportation bill to the governor by Sunday.

Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats, said the version offered on Monday would get no Democratic support.

"If [Republicans] substantially reduce funding for roads and bridges and gut mass transit, we'll fight that with all the available resources we have," he said. "We stand ready to work with the governor and Republican leadership on any constructive proposal."

Pension legislation took a step in the House, where Republicans voted out of committee proposals to move future state and public school employees to a defined-contribution retirement plan and make certain changes to the future benefits of current workers. A Senate committee last week approved enrolling new hires in a 401(k)-style plan but would leave benefits untouched for current employees.

Draft actuarial analyses released Tuesday by the Public Employee Retirement Commission found the transition from the traditional defined-benefit pension plan could cost billions of dollars over the coming years. Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland and a House Republican leader on pensions, said the findings made passage of pension reforms less likely.

"It means it's much more difficult to do this piece of legislation this week," he said. "We certainly don't want to do something that's going to impose major costs on these systems when in fact we're trying to reduce the unfunded liability."

But the commission voted to supplement the actuarial notes with information provided by Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester, prime sponsor of the House legislation, including testimony from a Texas foundation that told him the system's actuaries "have placed a heavy thumb on the scale in order to present a significant cost associated with a transition."

Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh and a Senate Republican leader on pensions, said actuaries agree on some aspects but disagree on others. Actuaries hired by the governor found his pension proposals would save money.

"There's a lot of components of these bills," he said. "It's a good idea for members to have all the information that's available."

Mr. Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, said discussions on pension reform legislation "are still very active" and that he believes there is still time to get legislation through the House and Senate by week's end.

state - Transportation - businessnews

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141. Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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