Pa. House passes budget, sets up Senate showdown

HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania House on Tuesday passed its own budget plan, then saw it gutted and amended by the Senate - the latest sign of discord and division over how to resolve the state's budget crisis.

The $30.3 billion Republican-backed plan, passed along party lines in the House, called for increases in the cigarette tax and new revenue from Internet gaming. But it abandoned most of the concepts in a more costly proposal that has bipartisan support from the Senate and Gov. Wolf, and it included far less than the $350 million in new schools funding the governor has sought.

Even after it was effectively quashed, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) continued to tout his chamber's proposal, saying the Senate plan appeared too expensive.

"I have not seen the Senate's tax package," he told reporters before cutting short questions and walking from the room. "Where are the votes, and where are the taxes coming from?"

The day's developments reflected the dysfunction that has enveloped the Capitol since both chambers diverged onto separate budget tracks last weekend, and left unanswered questions about how and when the stalemate might end.

"It is December," said Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We need to come to a consensus with all parties."

Wolf has not made a public appearance this week. His only comments Tuesday came in a 30-second video released by his office in which he sounded a familiar refrain, urging lawmakers to finally resolve the budget impasse.

He and Republican legislative leaders had announced a framework agreement before Thanksgiving that called for spending $30.8 billion this fiscal year, and included changes to the state pension and liquor systems.

The Senate began passing pieces of that agreement this week, though without resolving key aspects, including which taxes will be raised to pay for it.

Rank-and-file House Republicans have signaled they won't support tax increases to fund the framework budget, leading them to pitch their $30.3 billion plan - similar to one Wolf vetoed in June.

That plan passed the House Tuesday by a 115-86 vote. No Democrats supported it.

Rep. Bill Adolph (R., Delaware), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, described the deal as "the art of possible."

"At the end of this game, we have to move forward to bring this standoff to a close," he said.

High-ranking Democrats, however, decried the vote as a partisan and fruitless maneuver with little discernible value.

"This is just prolonging the budget impasse," said Rep. Joseph Markosek (D., Allegheny), minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

No one seemed certain what would happen next.

The Senate appeared poised to draft and vote on a liquor-reform bill proposed under the framework. For a budget to be completed, the senators also have to begin moving a tax bill that specifies how to fund the spending plan.

Turzai ducked questions about how the House would proceed.

The state has been without a budget since July 1.

Frank Dermody, a top House Democrat, predicted on the floor Tuesday that lawmakers might still be debating the budget on Jan. 1.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer