HARRISBURG - The Democratically controlled state House passed a $29.1 billion budget yesterday that preserves spending for a host of programs - from K-12 education to state parks - that had been threatened by recession-racked revenue collections.
Republicans tried to block the package, calling it a gimmick built largely on a plan to temporarily strip out funding for student loans and state-owned universities and community colleges.
Lawmakers would return in the fall to determine how higher-education costs, about $1.3 billion, would be funded.
The Democratic budget now moves to the Senate, where next week Republicans who control the chamber are expected to dismiss it and vote on a retooled plan of their own, leaving Pennsylvania no closer to a budget compromise.
The state has been operating without a budget since the fiscal year began July 1.
Gov. Rendell applauded the House action and said it would put pressure on Senate Republicans to yield on their steadfast opposition to any new or increased taxes. Now, he said, "the Senate Republicans are out there isolated in their no-revenue stance."
The House passed the budget, 104-95, mostly along party lines.
The vote was taken on the same day that tens of thousands of state employees received what likely will be their last paychecks before they will be asked to work without pay until the budget crisis is solved.
State workers picketed Rendell's house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia yesterday afternoon to protest.
"We are not interested in any games, any fear tactics, or anything else. We recognize that we need to get this done," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who as chairman of the Appropriations Committee crafted the budget. He said his plan would provide proper funding for key government services, from classrooms to welfare programs.
It would empty the state's $750 million Rainy Day savings account, impose new taxes on gas drilling, and set aside planned reductions in certain business taxes.
But critics complained loudest about what it doesn't do: Fund higher education.
Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga) called the budget "a sham" on the public.
"I'm not even sure it is legal or constitutional to set aside higher education and hold it hostage," he said.
The House version also doesn't include a broad-based tax hike like the 16 percent increase in the state income tax that Rendell proposed.
But it's only a matter of time, GOP legislators said. They argued that funding higher education later would certainly require a massive tax increase.
"That is the question. How is it going to be paid for?" House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) asked.
The Senate passed a $27.3 billion bare-bones budget in May that Rendell and legislative Democrats argued cut too deeply into core government functions. Since then, a reduction in state revenue has put that plan out of balance by more than $1 billion.
Senate Republicans are expected to work over the weekend on their new budget offering, which could be voted on as early as Monday, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).
With 18 months left until the end of his second term, Gov. Rendell is already contemplating his legacy in the political arena. He told reporters yesterday that he planned to write a "mostly humorous" book about his 30 years in politics and government.
Rendell said he did not have a book deal yet, but he has a working title, "My Life in Politics - You Can't Make This Stuff Up," and has sketched out 15 chapters.
Rendell finishes his second term as governor in 2010. He served two terms as mayor of Philadelphia and two terms as Philadelphia district attorney. He also was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
He was prompted to mention his memoir plans while taking questions about the budget standoff.
He said he hoped the book would teach others about governing, but that one of the primary points would be about how political posturing about issues like health care is "really destroying the country."
Rendell said the accomplishments he and the legislature had made - even when both chambers were controlled by Republicans - were "legion" in terms of advancing energy initiatives, cleaning up the environment, and improving education and access to health care. But he bemoaned what he called the posturing that occurs every budget season.
- Amy Worden