Tuesday's budget roundup: T-minus 5 days

Closed-door talks continued Tuesday as Gov. Corbett and Republican legislative leaders tried to hammer out differences on major policy initiatives before Sunday's deadline to pass a state budget.

The day brought incremental movement - but no final agreement - on what have come to be known as the Big 3: pension reform, liquor privatization, and transportation funding. Legislators in the Senate also made progress on moving key pieces of a rescue package for Philadelphia's cash-strapped school district.

The legislative activity unfolded against the backdrop of a boisterous rally on the Capitol steps, as hundreds of school employees, children and parents endured the blazing heat to demand adequate school funding.

Among them was Patricia Norris, 56, of Germantown, who is among several Philadelphia school staffers and parents on a hunger strike to raise awareness about the need for more money to keep city schools adequately staffed.

Norris, a food service assistant at Cayuga Elementary, said her school is facing layoffs of key student safety staff. If the school opens its doors without them come September, she had one word to describe what would happen: "Disaster."

She said she has had nothing but water in the last eight days.

"But it feels like a blessing," said Norris. "It feels like victory. I just want the children to be safe and have safe schools."

Legislators and the Corbett administration are working to craft a plan to help city schools, and on Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee passed four bills that could help the city raise additional funds for schools. One would authorize Philadelphia to create a $2-a-pack cigarette tax, which is considered key to the city’s plan to raise $74 million toward the school district's $304 million budget shortfall.

On the Big 3, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) described talks as "productive," with other Republicans saying they were hopeful for a compromise, despite the differences still dividing them.

On liquor privatization, the Senate could begin debating the latest proposal as early as Wednesday, although they are expected to make changes to it.

On transportation, House and Senate Republicans remain split over how much to spend on fixing roads and bridges, as well as funding mass transit - although by day's end, many seemed hopeful for a compromise.

As for pensions, House and Senate Republicans are narrowing their differences over how to best overhaul the state’s big public employee pension systems. But conflicting analyses on the cost of those plans could bog down those efforts.

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