Few details as Pa. budget impasse lingers

Legislature Pennsylvania
House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said lawmakers were weighing an expansion to the state sales tax as a way to generate revenues, but even the details of that package remained unclear.

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's budget impasse entered its sixth month Tuesday, with scant new details about what shape a final deal might take.

Frustrated lawmakers emerged from closed-door meetings with few revelations about if, how, or where progress had been made. Some rank-and-file House members wondered aloud what they might eventually vote on, and when.

"The devil is in the details," said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks). "And we haven't gotten details."

Scott Petri, another Bucks County Republican, said it seemed as if rumors swirl faster in the Capitol than real information.

"You feel like you're left in the dark," said Petri, noting that he was not even certain if the briefing memos he was given by caucus leaders matched those distributed to Senate colleagues.

The frustration stood in contrast to the optimism that Gov. Wolf and Republican leaders have sought to project. After rescuing their so-called framework from collapse last week, the two sides touted an agreement that would boost school spending by $350 million and reform the state's pension and liquor systems.

But key details - such as the shape of those changes, and the manner in which school aid would be raised and distributed - remained unanswered Tuesday.

Representatives for Wolf and GOP leaders said the talks were ongoing and remained fluid, but declined to offer specifics.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said lawmakers were weighing an expansion to the sales tax as a way to generate revenue, but even the details of that package remained unclear.

An expansion could mean eliminating exemptions for items such as amusement park tickets or parking fees. Reed would not identify which items might end up being included, though he noted lawmakers were unlikely to start taxing food or clothes.

Legislators on both sides said they were waiting to hear the specifics like everyone else - some more patiently than others.

"Still working it out," said Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia, accepting that the details of the negotiations remained private. "Putting things out there that aren't done [can be] harmful to the process."

As the impasse hit its 150th day, schools, counties, and nonprofits that rely on state funds continued to take steps to weather the uncertainty.

A Luzerne County judge on Monday approved a $20 million loan to keep county government open, while dozens of nonprofits and community groups statewide said they had formed a coalition to explore ways to help reform the budgeting process.

"It's just gone to hell," said Maxwell E.P. King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

King, a former editor of The Inquirer, said his organization and more than 30 others had agreed to join forces and figure out if they can help prevent future stalemates. Options could include lobbying for new budgeting rules, he said, or exploring various types of legal action.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has been considering a lawsuit of its own to force the state to release funds to county governments during shutdowns. Counties during the stalemate have fronted millions of dollars to perform state-mandated services, often burning through reserves or considering lines of credit.

Whatever uncertainties remained, Reed continued to believe a deal was close. He said the House could begin voting on budget-related bills at some point this week.

"I think a lot of it now, it's not necessarily that you're throwing a 50-yard pass and getting big items done," he said. "Now it's more two yards at a time."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

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