HARRISBURG - With strokes of the pen that took only seconds, Gov. Rendell last night signed into law a $27.8 billion state budget 101 days in the making.
With his "Edward G. Rendell" on three bills - taxes, spending, and the enabling fiscal code - the governor all but ended the nation's longest state budget impasse.
More important, his signatures will speed checks to the counties, schools, and social-service agencies that have stretched and strained to make ends meet while awaiting their months-overdue state subsidies.
"It is a responsible budget, but it took entirely too long. There is no excuse for us to put the public through three months of waiting," Rendell said at 9:05 p.m., after laying down the pen. "After months and months of wrangling, this budget, after difficulties and unconscionable delays, produces a good result for the people of Pennsylvania."
Rendell didn't order up a full bill-signing ceremony - the custom for major legislation - because "there is no reason to celebrate," he said.
The General Assembly still has work to do.
It must send Rendell several other pieces of legislation that make up the overall budget, including bills establishing funding for universities such as Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities, as well as the bill authorizing poker and other table games at slots parlors and resorts.
Officials said those bills may be delayed till early next week but would not impede completion of the overall budget.
Earlier yesterday, the Senate took the biggest step yet toward ending the budget stalemate by approving a spending plan, 42-7.
"I think the airplane is ready to come in for a landing," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said in an interview shortly before the vote. "Alert the runway."
The budget process, made more difficult this year by a deep recession and dwindling state revenues, cuts overall spending by more than 1 percent from last year while increasing public school funding by $300 million. Rendell had set the added education money as his precondition to any budget deal.
The governor already had another budget bill waiting on his desk - legislation to hike by 25 cents the state tax on a pack of cigarettes, to add a new tax on little cigars known as cigarillos, and to increase the capital-stock and franchise-tax paid by some companies. It also drains dry the $755 million in the state's Rainy Day Fund.
State Treasurer Rob McCord said yesterday he would expedite billions in checks to "priority" recipients, among them thousands of agencies such as mental-health centers, food pantries and shelters, along with child-care providers, which have been struggling to stay open.
School districts, veterans, and libraries, too, will see their state money flowing again as early as Tuesday.
"We're not skipping any steps; we're just doing them as fast as humanly possible and working late nights and weekends," said McCord, who urged providers and others expecting checks to consult the agency Web site (www.patreasury.org) for more information.
"As soon as we are legally capable to expedite payments, we will," he added.
Yesterday, the Senate passed two bills related to table games.
One would set tougher gaming regulations, including reauthorizing a ban tossed out by the courts earlier this year on state politicians' campaign contributions from gaming interests. Legislators wrote new wording in hopes of enacting a ban that will pass muster in the courts.
The other bill would set the tax rate on poker and other table games at 14 percent - 12 percent to the state, 2 percent to the municipality. Racetracks with slot machines and standalone casinos would also pay a $15 million upfront licensing fee to run table games; smaller, resort casinos, would pay $7.5 million.
A version of the legislation in the House calls for a 34 percent tax and a $20 million license fee for larger casinos. Legislative leaders still working toward a compromise between the competing versions have signaled that they expect to come to terms soon.
House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said the budget spends too much, adds new taxes, and exposes the state to lingering effects of the recession.
"With more than a billion dollars in new or increased taxes, billions in federal stimulus dollars, and now, by draining the Rainy Day Fund . . . we are positioned on a giant funding cliff if the economy doesn't swing back," Smith said.
Speaking for perhaps everyone at the Capitol and across the state, House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) said, "I'm just glad it's over."
$5.5 Billion for Education
All school districts will get an increase of at least 2 percent in basic education funding. B1.EndText