HARRISBURG - House Democrats yesterday pulled the plug on the day's planned debate over long-awaited legislation to authorize table games, ending a fractious week of backdoor wrangling and leaving empty-handed several universities still awaiting their annual state funding.
Democratic leaders said they were unable to round up the 102 votes needed to pass the bill. Several Democratic members were absent yesterday "for personal, medical or family matters" when the House convened, said Brett Marcy, a spokesman for Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne). He would not elaborate.
Democrats hold a 104-99 edge in the lower chamber.
Some Democrats have voiced reservations about portions of the proposal, and Republicans said support was eroding for the measure, which is to provide a key source of revenue for the current state budget.
The latest delay raises serious questions about whether there is enough time in the legislative calendar to approve the bill by the Christmas break, which starts Wednesday. The House is not expected to return to voting session until Monday, and the Senate, which must approve any House bill, is in session only two days next week.
Enacting legislation allowing poker, blackjack, roulette, and other table games is among the last major pieces of the state budget, which was adopted in October. The spending plan depends on receiving $200 million in revenue expected this year from new table games.
Another piece is allocating $730 million for universities such as Pennsylvania State, Temple and Lincoln, and for museums and hospitals.
House Democrats and Gov. Rendell have maintained that the state is unable to distribute that money until the table games are approved. In the last few days, House Republicans have been pushing for a separate measure to allocate the money before acting on table games.
A Temple spokesman yesterday said the school was prepared to "take action" if no bill was approved, but declined to say what kind.
"We are extremely concerned with the continued delay on a final vote for the appropriation," said spokesman Ray Betzner. "The failure to act has continuing financial consequences for the university and creates an unacceptable level of uncertainty for our students, families, and employees."
Last month, the schools said the continued delay in approving table-games legislation could mean tuition hikes starting in January.
The House came back into session for about 15 minutes yesterday morning before breaking for a caucus meeting.
By noon, it was apparent that Democrats had decided to cancel the day's session, and House Republicans held a news conference to blast the majority party.
In the shadow of the state Christmas tree glowing in the Capitol rotunda, nearly the entire Republican caucus filed onto the spiral marble staircase behind Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson). Republicans accused Democratic leaders of holding university funding hostage while trying to ram through table games legislation in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.
Smith said it has become clear over the course of the week that support for table games "is eroding as this thing continues to boil along."
Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks) derided Democratic leaders for tying the two issues together and for not allowing a vote on the university funding bills. She said the holdup likely would prompt universities to raise tuition or cut programs shortly.
"Gambling and higher education, in anybody's dictionary or thesaurus, are not synonyms," she said. "They have no direct or indirect relationship."
Rendell maintains there must be gambling revenue in to balance the budget and cover funding for the schools. A spokesman yesterday said the governor was discouraged by the lack of progress.
"It's the same refrain," said Gary Tuma. "The governor has been asking since mid-October to get this done and now it's mid-December."
Even some rank-and-file Democratic members were angry at the holdup of school funding - and one chose an unusual way to protest.
Rep. Steven J. Santarsiero (D., Bucks) remained in his seat in the House chamber and vowed to stay there until 11 p.m. yesterday.
"We're not here today, and we ought to be," said Santarsiero, coffee in hand, heading back to his chair in the empty chamber. "We need to make every effort to get those nonpreferred colleges funded."
Some Democrats, reluctant to criticize their leadership, said they thought more work was needed on a gaming bill, considering the financial stakes for both the commonwealth and gambling industry.
"If we are going to expand gaming in Pennsylvania, people should have confidence that it is done right," said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery). "That means getting the best value for Pennsylvania taxpayers and instituting much-needed gaming reforms. I'm not convinced yet that the proposal at hand accomplishes those objectives."
Any gambling legislation that comes out of the House must still clear the Republican-controlled Senate.
"We still plan to be in session next week, but the timetable is really up to the House at this point," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "The Senate passed two gaming reform bills and a bill to authorize table games months ago."