Budget mania

It's finally here: the last full week before the June 30 deadline to pass a state budget in Pennsylvania.

And how does it start off? With news of what is NOT getting done, rather than what is.

Monday started out with two prominent committee votes being delayed until at least Tuesday - if not longer -- including one involving a high-profile plan to fund roads and bridges, as well as mass transit. The powerful House Appropriations Committee was scheduled to vote on an amended transportation proposal in the morning, but did not go through it.

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said the delay was due to a "drafting error," but added that it would also give members extra time to consider the changes.

The amendment before the Appropriations committee would pare the $2.5 billion transportation funding plan recently passed by the Senate. The House amendments would eliminate many of the fee increases on motorists, contained in the Senate version, that were aimed at raising more money for public transit. The amendments would also require Philadelphia and other local governments to pay a higher share of the costs of transit.

Another vote delayed Monday, this time in a Senate committee: the $28.3 billion general fund bill, known simply as "the budget." That is now scheduled for Tuesday as well.

But the Senate Law and Justice Committee did meet, and it did narrowly pass the latest version of a bill to privatize the sale of wine and spirits in Pennsylvania. The vote was 6-5. Democrats united in voting against it; and several Republicans who control the chamber noted that though they were voting to move it out of committee, they would not necessarily support it in a floor vote unless it was changed.

That included Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who said he was concerned the bill could leave the rural communities he represents with fewer options for buying wine and hard liquor (the theory being, private entrepreneurs will not want to open a liquor store in sparsely-populated areas).

"I'm here to represent my district," said Scarnati. "And the rural areas, with the closure of the State Stores, we get hurt on access, we get hurt on price and we get hurt on selection."

Also on the agenda for later in the week: legislators could consider a federally funded Medicaid expansion, an overhaul of public employee pension systems, tougher ethics rules and academic standards for charter schools and the appointment of a state Supreme Court justice.

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