HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell gave his own party a rare public tongue-lashing yesterday for reneging on the bipartisan budget deal struck two weeks ago.
But the governor said he hoped to meet today with both parties' legislative leaders in the latest effort to resolve a budget stalemate entering its 96th day. Republicans said they were willing to meet with him.
Leaders in both chambers planned to resume work today on the budget amid visions, as House appropriations czar Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) put it, of " '100-day' headlines."
Rendell criticized House Democrats for approving legislation Friday night that "does not reflect the budget deal made two weeks ago," and said he doubted its prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The House Democrats' tax package "is no doubt in serious question in the Senate," Rendell told reporters. "And that means a step back."
Rendell, who declined to take questions from reporters, said that although the Democrats' proposals to raise $1.2 billion by taxing natural-gas extraction and tobacco products were similar to his own, he was "willing to live up to" the budget deal announced Sept. 18.
"I understand what members have done, and I understand the point they insisted on making," he said in a three-minute statement. "But doing a budget's not about making points. It's about compromise and shared pain."
Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, disputed the governor's assertion that Democrats had spoiled the deal, and he challenged the Senate to pass the revenue bill approved Friday.
He said the House bill met the agreed-upon $27.9 billion spending limit as well as the $1.2 billion in recurring revenue needed to balance the budget.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) saw Friday night's vote differently. "The truth is, the House has completely repudiated the agreement that was announced," Pileggi said.
But he also said his caucus would work with Rendell and Senate Democrats to cobble together a bipartisan response early this week.
Evans pointed out that although the House had nixed two proposals - a so-called arts tax and a levy on small games of chance - the chambers remained in agreement on other key sources of revenue, such as a 25-cents-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, a new tax on small cigars, and the freezing of the phase-out of the state's capital-stock and franchise-business tax.
He said there was simply "no political support" in the House Democratic caucus for the proposals to tax tickets to arts events, museums, and zoos, and raffles and other small games of chance.
Instead, the House voted for a revenue plan that would tax natural-gas drillers, smokeless tobacco, and cigars. The 103-98 vote was almost entirely along party lines.
The vote came exactly two weeks after Rendell and legislative leaders announced that a deal was in hand. That deal took a pounding over those two weeks. As legislative leaders assured the public that their staffs were fine-tuning the various budget bills, constituents began mounting blistering campaigns against central components of the deal.
The proposed taxes on arts events and raffles alienated broad swaths of Pennsylvania citizenry, from the patrons of the symphonies and ballets in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to the volunteer fire companies, Lions Clubs, and the like in the vast interior of the state who rely on funding from small games of chance. One senator, Larry Farnese (D., Phila.), said Friday that in the previous 24 hours he had received more than 2,500 e-mails opposing the arts tax.
A third proposal, to expand leasing of state land for natural-gas drilling, generated opposition from urban and rural environmentalists alike.
Then there were the House Republicans: They never had signed on to the Sept. 18 deal, saying they could not support its level of spending or its new taxes.
As recently as Monday, Rendell said his goal was "to sign a budget by Sunday." Yesterday, he said he hoped at least to meet with legislative leaders today and get closer to a final agreement.
"I believe we're still very, very close to having a budget," the governor said. "I know some analysts have said that this puts us back to square one. I disagree. I think the framework for a budget deal is still there."
Evans yesterday announced a meeting tomorrow of the on-again, off-again House-Senate conference committee to hash out the final spending plan.
The six-member bipartisan committee was formed in July to try to resolve differences over the budget in a public forum. But the panel has met only twice, with Senate Republicans accusing Democrats of grandstanding.
"It makes sense for the conferees to present the spending plan and discuss it in public," Evans said yesterday. "I'm hopeful all of the conferees will see the wisdom of solidifying this particular piece of the budget so we can move forward to a final agreement."
Meanwhile, in a brief session yesterday, the House approved two uncontroversial building blocks of the budget: a bill to amend the state welfare code and a measure to spend $1.6 billion on capital improvements.
Pileggi said the Senate would probably return to session tomorrow to consider those bills.
The House also was expected to convene today to vote on legislation to legalize and tax table games such as poker and blackjack at slot parlors. The bill, which passed out of committee Friday, would tax the games' proceeds at 34 percent, a figure much higher than that of previous proposals calling for a tax rate in the teens or 20s.
Evans said that as the state entered the 96th day of its fiscal year, he was not looking forward to the news coverage if the impasse isn't resolved soon.
"I see the '100-day' headlines now," he said. "Let's get this done."
A new world of taxable events. Buzz Bissinger, Currents,C1.