Arena funding tied up in state Senate
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HARRISBURG -- A state senator from McCandless says she'll urge her colleagues to vote by Friday on a new $1.6 billion slots-funded capital program that will provide funding for a new multi-purpose arena in Pittsburgh.
But Republican Sen. Jane Orie said there are two items that must be acted on first -- a new $27 billion state budget and a $750 million package of transportation funds -- before the Legislature can take up the new Gaming, Economic Development and Tourism Fund, which gets its money from a 5 percent tax on slots revenue.
"The slots fund should definitely be passed before we leave'' for the summer, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday.
House Bill 1631, a $1.6 billion list of projects that will ultimately receive slots money, was approved by the House late last week and sent over to the Senate. But action on it has become bogged down by disputes between Gov. Ed Rendell and legislators over the new budget and over aid for roads, bridges and mass transit.
Mr. Rendell is also urging senators to approve the new capital fund, which is needed in order to finance the new $300 million arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins and other tenants. The gaming fund will also pay for an $800 million expansion of the convention center in Philadelphia.
Penguins officials are warning that if the gaming fund isn't approved before legislators quit for the summer, it could seriously delay construction of the new arena.
"I have also encouraged the Senate to do House Bill 1631 for the new arena in Pittsburgh,'' said Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
In other legislative business yesterday, Sens. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, and Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, elaborated on a change to the state school code that will enable state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak to reassign 200 students from the now-closed Duquesne High School.
The Senate on Friday approved a change in the school code that will allow Mr. Zahorchak to reassign the Duquesne students to any district within three miles of the borders of the city of Duquesne. That opens up eight neighboring school districts to receive Duquesne students -- East Allegheny, McKeesport, South Allegheny, West Mifflin, Woodland Hills, Gateway, Steel Valley and even the city of Pittsburgh.
Senate officials said a small corner of Pittsburgh is, by their calculations, within three miles of the nearest part of Duquesne and thus Pittsburgh could be given some Duquesne students.
The final decision as to which neighboring districts actually receive the students will be up to the education secretary, who is expected to make his selections fairly soon, since the new school year starts in two months.
The original amendment called for Duquesne students to be reassigned to any district within 10 miles of Duquesne city, but that would have opened up 27 districts, which senators thought was far too many.
Mr. Logan and Mr. Costa voted against the school code change, claiming it gives too much power to Mr. Zahorchak. It needs House approval before it can take effect and before Mr. Zahorchak can notify Duquesne students where they'll be going in the fall.
Mr. Evans said he's met with House members from that area, including Reps. Bill Kortz and Marc Gergely. "We are trying to do what is right for those kids,'' he said.
Also yesterday, the Senate approved an Orie amendment to Senate Bill 857, which changes the composition of the nine-member Allegheny County Port Authority board. Currently, county Chief Executive Dan Onorato makes all nine appointments. Under the Orie plan, the four top General Assembly leaders would each get one appointment, while Mr. Onorato would make the other five.
Ms. Orie said that since the state supplies about 60 percent of the Port Authority budget, it deserves representation on the board.
Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said yesterday he doesn't expect final action on the new $27 billion state budget until the middle or latter part of next week. If it isn't settled by July 7 or so, he said some "nonessential'' state employees would be furloughed.
These would include some Department of Revenue officials who work on the central casino computer system, which is connected to thousands of slot machines in the five racetrack/casinos in Pennsylvania. Without these workers, the casinos would have to close until a new budget is approved, Mr. Fumo said, adding he hopes such a shutdown won't happen.
At this point, it doesn't appear the Legislature will take final action on a smoking ban for public places and workplaces. A watered-down version was passed by the Senate, but so far the House hasn't acted on it and there may not be enough time, given the other issues that are pending.
There also may not be time to act on Mr. Rendell's Energy Independence Strategy, which includes a new electric assessment and development of alternative forms of energy, before legislators leave for the summer.
First Published June 30, 2007 11:25 pm