2009-07-23 / Local & State

Work Piles Up As PA Lawmakers Fight Over Budget

By Mark Scolforo ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Every year about this time, the General Assembly hashes out other matters along with the state budget - think legislative pay raise, pension grab and Interstate 80 tolls. But this summer, movement on some of Pennsylvania's most pressing problems seems unlikely.

The current budget talks, mired in a severe tax revenue shortfall and partisan differences that have left the sides entrenched and miles apart, have cast a shadow over the building. In a full-time Legislature often criticized for its low productivity, not much else has been getting done lately.

A few days ago, Gov. Ed Rendell asked legislative leaders to work on three topics he believes can be tackled - aid to help develop solar energy and clean coal businesses, a cost-cutting consolidation of school district health insurance premiums, and legislation to smooth a looming spike in electric rates.

"No. 1, they're all good legislation. No. 2, we've got time - obviously there's a lot of time when we're up here during budget,'' Rendell said. "No. 3, it would be a good signal to the people of the commonwealth that ... we're still here doing things that benefit the quality of their lives.''

Unusual for a budget year, there has been little talk lately about the state's transportation systems. The federal stimulus money is a shot in the arm, but Pennsylvania is saddled with considerable long-term road and bridge infrastructure needs..

Because the federal government has not approved tolls on Interstate 80, cash from the turnpike for roads, bridges and mass transit will fall by about $450 million in just under a year.

"The political and the social atmosphere is not conducive to doing what we really should be doing in transportation, and that's taking care of our infrastructure over time and not waiting until we get into a crisis situation,'' said House Transportation Chairman Joe Markosek, DAllegheny.

Lawmakers could also turn their attention to the state's troubled public-sector pension systems. The largest plans, for school employees and state workers, are facing a massive funding shortfall in about two years and municipal pensions are also looking at trouble ahead.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he hopes that comprehensive pension reforms will be tackled sometime this fall.

"This can't be done in a politically charged way,'' said Corman, R-Centre. "It has to be done in a substantive way that addresses the problem.''

Pennsylvania also needs to address the huge debt to the federal government it has been rolling up because its Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund is out of money.

The Rendell administration estimates that Pennsylvania will need to borrow $1.8 billion from the federal government this calendar year alone in order to keep jobless checks going out the door. But the money will have to be paid back somehow, especially after the feds begin charging interest in 2011.

If Harrisburg does not come up with a solution, higher taxes on businesses and individuals will result automatically.

The General Assembly also could jump back into the reform waters, although that momentum has slowed considerably since the last two-year session resulted in new House and Senate rules and the revamped Right-to-Know Law.

More recently, a Democratic proposal to add another reporting period for campaign spending, so voters get an earlier look at who is contributing to political campaigns, was pulled from consideration on the House floor.

The sponsor, Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Northampton, said it attracted a host of politically sensitive amendments, and leaders told him they preferred to focus their energies on the budget.

Tim Potts, a reform advocate who co-founded Democracy Rising PA, said lawmakers ought to be concentrating on the budget this time of year, but they also could be much more productive the rest of the year - even if it cuts into the two-month summer break that normally follows passage of the budget.

"You can't help but be suspicious of things that are concocted as filler while leaders are doing the budget,'' said Potts, a former House Democratic aide. "It is traditionally a time of mischief, and there's no reason to believe there won't be mischief this time, too.''

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