HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell said yesterday that he would be forced to lay off at least 1,000 government workers if the General Assembly failed by Jan. 8 to resolve its impasse over authorizing table games.
"The consequences are dire if we don't pass this," Rendell said at a Capitol news conference.
An issue caught up in the table-games debate was resolved last night when Rendell signed a bill authorizing $647 million for four state-related universities: Lincoln, Temple, Pennsylvania State, and Pittsburgh. For months, he had refused to act on that aid until table games were approved.
Any hope of enacting a compromise gaming measure this year ended when the House adjourned yesterday until Jan. 5 without voting on the bill the Senate approved Wednesday before leaving town for the holidays.
The Senate legislation rewrote key sections that House Democratic leaders said could doom final passage. The most contentious is the approval of an additional resort casino license.
Passage of a bill legalizing table games - such as roulette, poker, and blackjack - at slots parlors was part of the state budget Rendell signed in October. He said the $250 million expected through license fees, taxes, and related sources was needed to help close a budget gap.
The aid to universities will begin flowing in the next two weeks, Rendell said.
The measure also includes new funding for other institutions, such as hospitals and museums, but their allocations will be cut by 50 percent. Aid to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine will be cut by almost 13 percent.
If revenue improves, Rendell said, the state will try to restore that funding next year.
He said that he was encouraged by progress lawmakers had made on the gaming bill, and that the two-week "cooling-off period" would help get issues resolved swiftly when the legislature returned.
"The House and Senate versions are 95 percent identical," he said. "I believe this can be worked out" on Jan. 5.
In a letter to legislative leaders yesterday, Rendell stressed that enacting the table-games bill was imperative, or else he would have to put $250 million into budgetary reserve, forcing the layoffs.
House Republican leaders lambasted the governor for again holding government workers hostage.
"It's a disingenuous argument," said House Minority Whip Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). "There's money going forward."
During the budget crisis in the summer, tens of thousands of government workers went for weeks with partial paychecks. Their full pay was later restored.
Brett Marcy, spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, said that House Republicans were "in denial of budgetary facts," and that the gaming money was needed to balance the budget.
Rendell said one hurdle in the gaming-bill debate was a disagreement between Philadelphia's Senate and House members over distribution of proceeds from the two yet-to-be-built casinos in the city.
House Democrats would allocate the money for the Philadelphia School District and various nonprofit organizations; the Senate version would award the money to groups in the neighborhoods that have the casinos.
Rendell said that issue had been eliminated in the last 48 hours. He credited Mayor Nutter with helping to settle the dispute, but it was unclear late yesterday what the resolution was.
A key issue causing the overall legislative impasse is a proposal supported by House Democrats to add a resort casino license, bringing the number in the state to 15. The Senate stripped out that provision while agreeing to reopen the application process for one of two previous resort casino licenses.
Rendell termed that argument a "turf war" between lawmakers who stood to get a casino in their districts and lawmakers who already have casinos in their districts and fear local competition.
He said that he didn't care how the two sides resolved the resort-license issue, and that he would be amenable to any of the options on the table.
Marcy said House Democrats would work with Senate colleagues over the Christmas holiday to reconcile their differences.