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Rendell calls for meeting on the Monday holiday to speed natural-gas tax negotiations

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell is haranguing legislative leaders to return to work on Columbus Day and discover a route, at long last, to a tax on natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell is haranguing legislative leaders to return to work on Columbus Day and discover a route, at long last, to a tax on natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale.

At a news conference Friday, Rendell decried what he called a "preposterous" lack of substantive talks to establish a tax rate. He said he had organized a meeting for 1:30 p.m. Monday - a state holiday - with key legislators and industry representatives in the hope of reaching a deal.

"We made a promise to the people of Pennsylvania," he said, referring to his and legislators' midsummer vow to craft a natural gas tax by Oct. 1. "I intend to honor that promise."

But in a sign that such a tax may be delayed again, Republican leaders said they would gladly meet with the lame-duck Democratic governor Tuesday.

They also differed sharply with Rendell's framing of the issue, branding "absolutely untrue" his claim that they were stalling in hope of having a Republican governor by January.

For nearly two years, the natural-gas industry and its allies have staved off proposals to tax the wave of new drilling in the lucrative Marcellus formation. Over the summer, as part of negotiations on the annual budget, legislators promised to return to the Capitol this fall and enact a tax by Oct. 1.

Rendell said the House - where Democrats rule by a slim majority - held up its end with passage of a tax proposal last week. He said the GOP-controlled Senate had done nothing but "carp and criticize" in an apparent attempt to "run out the clock" in the hope that Republican Tom Corbett will be elected governor Nov. 2.

Corbett has said he is against imposing a tax on gas drilling.

"This is all B.S. right now," the governor said of the Senate's stance. "The time for ideological posturing, the time for political posturing, the time for attempting to run out the clock, is over. The time to get to work and pass a serious bill is Monday at 1:30."

The Senate is scheduled to be in session Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The House recessed this week and plans to return after the election. The Senate, however, has no plans to return then, its leaders have said.

House Democrats said they would attend Monday's meeting with Rendell in person or by telephone. House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) is going to a funeral, but plans to attend the meeting afterward if it is still in progress.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said Senate GOP leaders would be available to meet with Rendell - on Tuesday morning.

"An in-person meeting on Tuesday morning, rather than Monday afternoon, does not cost us a single moment of time in terms of the legislative calendar," Arneson said.

"Absolutely untrue" was his retort to Rendell's claim of GOP stalling in the hope of a win by Corbett, who is running against Democrat Dan Onorato. Rendell's second and final term ends in January.

Senate Republicans, Arneson said, have been working on a comprehensive natural-gas tax proposal for months and have been in active negotiations with Democrats for weeks. He also said the Republicans delivered draft tax legislation to the governor's office on Friday.

But Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma called that proposal "in the realm of something that the governor does not consider a reasonable tax . . . and would veto."

Rendell had originally proposed a 5 percent tax on sales of the extracted gas, and an additional 4.7 cents for every 1,000 cubic feet of gas produced.

The Senate Republican draft proposal calls for a 1.5 percent tax on the market value of gas from wells producing more than 150,000 cubic feet of gas. That rate would apply for the first five years of production, at which point the tax would increase to 5 percent.

The bill the House approved last week calls for a much heftier rate: a levy of 39 cents per 1,000 cubic feet (or roughly 10 percent) of natural gas produced.

Senate Republican leaders have called that proposal "ridiculous," dismissing the rate as the highest in the nation.

Complicating matters is a belief among Senate Republicans that the House measure is unconstitutional because it was added to legislation on an unrelated topic. Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) is seeking an advisory opinion from the legislature's bill-drafting office as to whether the bill can withstand a court challenge.