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Seeming lack of budget urgency

Both sides in Harrisburg say an agreement will likely be reached in September, but how remains unclear.

The latest flare-up in Harrisburg's elusive efforts to end the budget stalemate occurred Wednesday, when the Senate tried to restore funding for some social services that Gov. Rendell vetoed when he signed a recent measure to resume paying state workers.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) accused the governor of not being willing to engage with legislative leaders and dismissed a bipartisan budget conference committee as a failure.

It was the 50th day of the state budget impasse, and it seemed that little, if anything, had been accomplished since July 1, when a new state spending plan was supposed to be in force.

Pileggi's spokesman, Erik Arneson, also spoke of "a deep sense of frustration" about the failed bid to resume state aid to some agencies that are quickly running out of money.

But Republican and Democratic leaders are still talking, he said, adding, "There have been no breakthroughs, nor are they on the verge of a breakthrough, but there is forward momentum."

Still, even as the clock ticks toward September, when quarterly payments are supposed to go out to the counties to fund dozens of social services, some are wondering whether the urgency to resolve the budget has dissipated.

Observers say it's hard to pinpoint what will bring the entrenched sides together to overcome their divide on cutting programs and raising taxes.

Both sides say they expect a conclusion next month, though what exactly will drive them to reach an agreement is not yet clear.

"At this point too many Pennsylvanians don't feel the pressure because the majority of families - outside of those receiving college grants - don't get safety-net services," child advocate Cathleen Palm said. "The only people dialing the phone to lawmakers are the ones who don't want their programs cut."

In a survey of 500 organizations released Friday by the United Way, 69 percent said they would have to reduce or eliminate services if they did not receive funding by Sept. 30.

Palm and others say that because Rendell signed a stopgap bill last month to restore paychecks to 70,000 state workers, there doesn't appear to be another major trigger point that will force legislative leaders and the governor to the bargaining table.

Rendell said last week that he had given as much as he could give by cutting deeper than he wanted to into state programs and that it was time for Senate Republicans, who have resisted any tax increases, to compromise.

"The governor has been clear: The budget will be solved by spending cuts and revenue increases," Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said. "He has laid out proposals. The legislature has rejected them. Now he's waiting to hear how they will address the revenue shortfalls."

Mark Singel, who was Democratic lieutenant governor during a recession in 1991, said he agreed with Rendell that the state could not cut its way out of an economic slump and that a modest tax increase of some kind was needed. But neither party, he said, appears to have enough votes.

"Both sides have talked themselves into a corner," said Singel, now a Harrisburg lobbyist. "Over two election cycles, the Republicans in the Senate have solidified their majority by pledging no new taxes, and there's even objection in the Democrat-controlled House."

Sen. Jay Costa of Allegheny County, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, sounded a more upbeat note.

"I'm very disappointed we've not been able to conclude this budget process," he said Thursday. "But while publicly not much is going on, folks have been meeting and trying to reach consensus."

Rep. Mario Civera of Delaware County, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, was less sanguine.

"I'm disgusted," he said. "I'd give us a zero to none on progress."

Civera contended that Republicans, at least in the House, were willing to give a little on the revenue side - even to consider casino table games, a proposal that would have been laughed out of a caucus meeting a few years ago.

He said that he had proposed freezing the reductions in the capital stock and franchise business tax to raise $272 million over two years and was willing to increase the cigarette tax - as Rendell wants - in his budget plan, but that it couldn't get any traction in the Democratic-controlled House.

"I'd love to see this done by Labor Day to put the school districts and the counties at ease, but I don't know," Civera said, lamenting what he said he believed was a lack of urgency on the part of the administration.

Jeff Coleman, a former Republican lawmaker and now a Harrisburg political strategist, said it could come down to school districts feeling the pinch, and that could be months away.

"As long as basic education needs are met, kids are getting hot lunches, and the lights are on, it's hard to make a case," he said.