Legislators scramble to beat budget deadline

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HARRISBURG -- The June 30 state budget deadline ticked closer Friday without a clear end in sight as leaders of the Republican legislative majorities met privately to discuss ways to close a looming shortfall.

“There's still a lot of work to do over the weekend," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, though he said the leaders had made progress in finding a common approach. The House and Senate had been scheduled to meet each day through Monday, but leaders told rank-and-file members to return late Sunday for possible votes.

Across the Pennsylvania Capitol, past a rotunda teeming with lobbyists, Philadelphia-area parents and children stood outside another set of closed doors -- those of Gov. Tom Corbett -- to repeat chants urging increases in funding for public schools.

"Who are we? The education voters."

"Who are we gonna get rid of? Corbett."

Legislative leaders and Mr. Corbett have admitted they may not deliver the annual state spending plan by the time the next fiscal year begins Tuesday. Pennsylvania faces a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, and Mr. Corbett and the top Republican senators and House members have not agreed on a mix of of spending cuts and revenue hikes to bridge the gap.

The House on Wednesday approved a $29.1 billion budget that relies on $380 million from disbanding the state system of wine and liquor stores, a proposal that is not expected to clear the Senate in the near future. Top Senate Republicans and aides to Mr. Corbett have discussed plugging the hole with revenue from a new tax on the extraction of natural gas, though House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, exiting the Friday afternoon session, said the severance tax was no longer under consideration.

"It's conceivable, but not likely," he said. "Frankly, we don't know where the votes are in both the House and the Senate.”

That is in part, Mr. Smith said, because House Republicans believe their Democratic counterparts will not support any measure that would allow the governor to “get a win.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forrest Hills, said Republicans have not included Democrats in the most recent budget discussions.

"They're not doing any revenues, so in their view, they don't need us,” he said. “They're going to do a Republican budget.”

And he said Democrats are in fact ready to talk revenues: "Our caucus would thoroughly participate in a conversation on severance tax," he said.

The House Democratic leader, Frank Dermody of Oakmont, said there is solid support in his caucus for a tax on natural gas drillers. But he said Democrats have not been allowed in the room.

“Republicans have shut Democrats out of their private budget talks with the governor,” Mr. Dermody said in a statement. “Now that their efforts are floundering, they want to blame people who have not been in the talks.”

Mr. Corbett has urged legislators to send him a bill to reduce the state’s costs for pensions for state and public school workers. But weeks of House Republican attempts to whip votes have not resulted in action on the floor.

Education funding has been an issue at the Capitol since schools sustained funding losses in his first year, when federal stimulus money ran out. Mr. Corbett has proposed new programs for K-12 and higher education, and Republican legislators seem to agree that some additional money should be delivered.

Outside of Mr. Corbett’s offices Friday, Chinara Bilaal, of Philadelphia, said a lack of resources in the city public schools convinced her to enroll her four children in alternatives. Two sons are in charter school, another child is in Catholic school and the fourth is at a specialty school.

"My oldest son wants to be an investment banker," she said. "My oldest daughter wants to be a pediatrician or veterinarian. Neither one will be able to fulfill their heart's desire if they don't have quality education."

Several Pittsburgh parents and grandparents were planning to arrive at the Capitol this weekend to demonstrate for increased education funding.

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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