With Rendell, legislators at odds, budget expires

The Senate wants to trim the governor's plan by about $250 million. Spending is curtailed today.

HARRISBURG - Deadline? What deadline?

For the fifth consecutive year, the June 30 cutoff to enact a new state budget came and went as lawmakers and Gov. Rendell failed to reach a compromise spending package.

Rendell and lawmakers - mainly Republicans - remain at odds over the $27.3 billion budget and a host of bills favored by the governor dealing with transportation, energy and health care.

On Thursday, Rendell, who has yet to sign a budget on time since coming to the Capitol in 2003, downplayed the significance of the deadline.

"There is no magic to the June 30 deadline," he said when another blown budget deadline became a certainty. "The people who care most about whether we get a budget agreement by June 30 are the people who habitate this building."

But the tune changed dramatically last night after the Senate broke about 8 p.m. without tackling any of the major budget-related bills and without setting a time to return.

Starting today, without a new fiscal blueprint in place, the state loses its ability to spend tax dollars. The state could furlough about a third of its 78,000 employees who are deemed nonessential starting Saturday, when their current pay period ends. Other employees responsible for health and safety - from state police to caseworkers - will remain on the job regardless of the budget impasse.

Welfare and unemployment checks would still go out, but such places as state parks and driver's-license centers could shut down. Casinos, too, could close their doors because state Revenue Department workers who oversee gaming computers would be furloughed.

The last time a budget impasse caused furloughs was in 1991, and on Thursday, Rendell expressed confidence it would not come to that.

That confidence was gone last night.

"I'm very upset about this breakdown because it imperils the salaries state workers earn," Rendell said.

In a news conference about 90 minutes after the Senate recessed, Rendell toughened his rhetoric considerably, reminding Republicans that he was serious about fighting for his agenda and willing to wait them out, regardless of the furloughs.

"If there are people out there . . . that think that I won't, I want to remind them that they are looking at the mayor who took a 40-day transit strike," said Rendell, who as Philadelphia mayor suffered through a contract impasse with transit workers in 1998.

Talks had accelerated in the last two weeks, and both sides reported making headway.

The Republican-controlled Senate wants to trim Rendell's proposed budget by about $250 million.

Beyond the budget, there is Rendell's ambitious agenda for the 2007-08 fiscal year that starts today. In the months leading to the budget discussion, the governor had urged that the legislature enact much of his agenda - from an energy-independence strategy to expanded health-care policies.

As he has in past years, Rendell, a Democrat, has accused the legislature - particularly Republicans - of foot-dragging.

The governor said he briefed leaders in detail about his agenda in March and asked them to consider his initiatives in the months before the budget season heated up.

Yet, Rendell said, they have procrastinated, then complained they don't have enough time to get it all done.

"It's a little bit like killing your parents and then asking the court for mercy because you're an orphan," he said.

Republicans leaders, as they have in past years, criticized Rendell for delaying talks on the finer details of his agenda until the very end.

With the state ending the fiscal year with a $650 million surplus, passing a budget on time should have been easy, said House Minority Leader Sam Smith, who accused Rendell of sending mixed signals to legislative leaders throughout the budget process and constantly shifting his priorities.

"If this was any other governor that I served with, this would have been a slam-dunk, easy budget year, done on time with room to spare," said Smith (R., Jefferson), elected to the House in 1986.

Yesterday, a Senate committee passed a $750 million transportation-funding package for mass-transit agencies and highway and bridge projects. But it still needs final approval of both chambers, and the governor has repeatedly insisted on much more - $1 billion - as a prerequisite to any budget.

The pace of the budget season has changed with the reform tide that swept through Harrisburg after the 2005 legislative-pay-raise debacle. In some ways, with bills getting more deliberation, the legislative tempo has slowed.

Lawmakers are keeping their promise of more open and accountable government by not working past 11 p.m. They've also stuck to a rule change requiring that bills be considered in three days and that bills' language remain constant. Gone, too, are the late-night "gut and replace" maneuvers by leadership seeking to ram through controversial bills.

"Everyone is more conscious of the requirement for multiple days of consideration, so no longer is any thought given to last-minute substitutions," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.).

Privately, though, some staffers say they are nostalgic for the days when a handful of leaders retreated to back rooms to craft a final package and quickly put it up for a vote.

As bills under the new rules were being positioned for votes over the last two weeks, lawmakers often found themselves biding their time with little to do.

Rendell, meanwhile, spent the last week calling news conferences to alternately laud and chide the legislature, while waiting, he says, for the General Assembly to deliver him a reasonable budget and acceptable bills on transportation, health care and energy.

Asked whether, given his record of late budgets, he was doing something wrong, Rendell said: "I missed four budget deadlines and got reelected by 61 percent [of the vote]. I think I was doing something right."

He continued: "Once this is all over, I'm going to go back to the legislative leaders and literally beg them to have a better work schedule for next year."

Does that mean Harrisburg would get a new budget by July 1 next year?

"I repeat what I tell you all the time," he said. "You didn't elect me king."


INSIDE

Once again, lawmakers and Gov. Rendell miss budget deadline. B5.


Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.