Just three session days remain before the clock turns over to a new fiscal year – and lawmakers are still searching for a universal agreement on a spending plan or a revenue package to close out the current fiscal year and balance the coming year’s budget.
After having what he called “a private discussion” with House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana), Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) reported little progress on a gaming expansion measure that can get through both chambers and satisfy in terms of needed revenue.
“If something is dead one day, it’s alive the next; there’s not a deadline (on gaming expansion agreement) – we’re just trying to figure out a path on all this stuff,” he said. “It’s harder for all of us because there’s less revenue if we don’t get a gaming bill done.”
Speaking candidly to reporters about what the House Republicans would be looking for in terms of a final revenue package, Reed noted his caucus stated their priorities with the passage of bills further providing for liquor privatization and gaming expansion containing a video gaming terminal component – something he said needs to be respected in whatever final product is developed.
“We sent a lot of revenue proposals over to the Senate over the last couple months; gaming with VGTs was one of them, we sent them a lot of liquor proposals – we’re certainly not going to rubber-stamp a revenue package that’s not at least respectful of the bills we sent over,” he said, adding that “78 of our members voted for a gaming expansion bill with VGTs. It’s been a priority of our caucus, just as an alternative to a personal income tax increase.”
As to how VGT-support efforts are going in the Senate, main Republican proponents Sen. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Allegheny) and Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin) have been put in charge of the effort to win over uncertain members.
The latest informal whip counts have yes votes peaking at around 19 or 20, with that number varying depending on which proposal is being discussed.
Currently being floated are measures that would have VGTs legalized statewide, allowing VGTs in counties of the fourth through eighth classes, or legalizing them in zones based upon casino slot machine capacity.
One area that could help win some reluctant VGT votes in the Senate is greater inclusion of Senate Democrats in the budget process.
According to Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), an elevation of their voice in the budget negotiation process could turn some current negative votes into support for some negotiated VGT plan.
“(Our level of support) also depends on what role Senate Democrats play in this budget conversation,” he said. “If we are going to be expected to resolve the linchpin problem on gaming, then it’s imperative that we are involved in the conversation about the budget itself and how we are going to develop recurring revenues. We are not just going to put our votes forward to support a gaming proposal and then be ignored in terms of how we are going to drive out these dollars in the budget or the revenue side of the equation.”
Other revenue concepts – including the so-called drink tax; a bond issue securitized by Tobacco Settlement Funds; and a transaction tax on buying and selling space on electric transmission lines – all remained in the vetting stage as a deal on gaming expansion continues to hold up true advancement on what other revenue needs are out there to close the budget gap for the next fiscal year.
Meanwhile, all Republican eyes still seem centered on getting at least a spending plan to the governor’s desk by June 30 – regardless of whether the plan balances or not – and potentially coming back after the weekend or July 4 holiday to finish up revenue and any other budget-related legislation should the need arise.
According to Costa, that’s something that could be disastrous for Pennsylvanians. He is urging lawmakers to consider a spending plan higher than the currently almost-agreed-to spending number of $31.8 billion.
Of particular concern to Costa and his caucus are cuts to early childhood education, child care services and some general governmental operations lines.
“That budget is woefully weak – we have to take steps to try to restore some of the funding along those lines, those line-items for those programs,” he said. “There is a whole host of things that are woefully short of where we need to be and below where the governor’s proposed budget was.”
The current spend number of $31.8 billion is $500 million shy of what the governor proposed in February.
Legislators return to voting session on Wednesday and are expected to remain so until at least Friday, the last day of the current fiscal year.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.