HARRISBURG - The details of a $28.2 billion state budget deal reached overnight remained vague yesterday, as aides scrambled on the last day of the fiscal year to distill the handshake agreement into understandable facts and figures.
The agreement between Gov. Rendell and top legislators, announced just after 1 a.m. yesterday on the heels of six hours of talks, would inject huge amounts of money into public schools, alternative energy projects and municipal water and sewer systems.
The timing of the deal, hammered out on the last day of the 2007-08 fiscal year, ensured that thousands of state workers would stay on the job and averted threatened furloughs and a partial government shutdown.
Rendell was unwilling to delve into the details of the budget agreement, referring reporters to the line-by-line spreadsheets and charts of the budget and billions of dollars in attached borrowing programs that legislative aides were grinding out yesterday.
"Right now, you know, there can be many a slip between a cup and the lips," Rendell told reporters.
The agreed-to budget package would push up spending by 3.8 percent and would not increase any broad-based taxes or fees. It also would authorize about $2.5 billion in borrowing, much of it to encourage expansion of a homegrown alternative-energy industry, help local governments with civic improvement projects, and replace aging bridges, dams and water and sewer facilities.
The budget also will deliver $274 million more, a 5.5 percent increase, for public school instruction and operations, almost the entire increase Rendell had sought. Rendell's plan was reworked so that no school district will receive less than a 3 percent bump, up from a 1.5 percent basement that some legislators opposed, senators said.
Creative budget-making also would maintain spending at close to the $28.3 billion that Rendell proposed in February. A stumbling national economy has choked off state revenue, leaving an enormous hole in Rendell's assumptions that negotiators filled by scrounging more than $500 million in one-time dollars.
To fill that hole, they scrapped plans to transfer a $138 million chunk of surplus into the state's "rainy day" contingency fund, drew on unspent money from various programs and tapped state liquor store and lottery revenue to pay some bills. Rendell also agreed to halve his $90 million proposal to buy laptops for high-school classrooms.
Many others details about the agreement were missing or murky yesterday. Writing, debating and passing the package of budget-related bills will keep legislators - itching to start their traditional two-month summer break from Harrisburg - at the Capitol for much of the week, at least.
Part of the exercise for legislators now is a secretive process in which the four legislative caucuses split up a pot of hundreds of millions of dollars. If last year was any guide, the destination for much of the money will be grants that rank-and-file legislators will steer to local governments, police departments, school groups and community nonprofits in their districts.
House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, said yesterday that he did not know the final number that each caucus gets to spend.
"I don't think that number has been carved in stone," DeWeese said.
The budget agreement left some major issues unsolved.
The parties were unable to reach a consensus on a health-care expansion for the uninsured or a way to shield more than 4 million of the state's electricity customers from spiking electric bills in 2010 and 2011, when most of the rate caps that state regulators imposed a decade ago expire.
Rendell said he wants working groups of staff members from his administration and the Legislature to address both issues over the summer and come up with policies that can be passed in the Legislature's election-shortened fall session.
"We've got to use the summer wisely," Rendell said. "Has that happened before? Not much, but I think there's a real determination to get that done." *