HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell today is to sign into law a sharply pared-down budget bill that will allow the state to begin paying its employees again but withhold billions in state dollars for public schools, counties, and social-service organizations.
The skeleton measure is meant to be a temporary solution to the state's budget stalemate, now in its second month. Rendell and top lawmakers are still wrangling over a spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, and they will continue their negotiations.
"The public has been frustrated by this budget impasse," Rendell told reporters yesterday. "We all understand that frustration, and hopefully, we are going to roll up our sleeves and do something about it. We are not just sitting around doing nothing."
The governor said that after he signed the measure today, roughly 77,000 state workers would begin receiving back pay as early as next week for checks they did not receive last month.
Those employees received one check containing between 20 and 70 percent of their customary pay. Roughly 33,000 received no paycheck at all last Friday. The remaining 44,000 will receive no check this Friday.
"These workers have needlessly been caught in the middle of this budget crisis," Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) said yesterday. "They deserve to be paid for all the hard work they do, and this [budget] does that."
Still, the spending plan Rendell is to sign will not contain billions in funding for counties and school districts. That is because the governor will use his line-item veto power to wipe out dollars for all but basic government operations while he and the legislature continue efforts to reach a consensus on a final budget.
Those talks have not gone well.
The governor, with the support of Democrats in the legislature, had been pushing for a 16 percent hike in the state's personal-income tax rate. Rendell advocated the tax increase to help pay, in part, for more funding for schools.
Republicans who control the Senate have been dead set against any broad-based tax increase during a recession, saying such a move would only hurt working families. Instead, they have sought to rein in spending.
On Monday, however, the budget landscape shifted when House Democrats declared publicly for the first time that Rendell's tax increase was dead.
Rendell would not concede the point yesterday, but he added that he had said for weeks that he was not wedded to the proposal.
He said he would drop the idea if the legislature came to him with a counterproposal to raise revenue in the coming years. He would not say whether he had a preference as to what that might be.
"I gave them my idea - my idea is the best. The ball is in their court now," Rendell said.
He said that he expected a committee of lawmakers from the House and the Senate to resume work on a final state budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
For now, no private talks between Rendell and top legislative leaders have been scheduled.
Political analyst G. Terry Madonna said yesterday that he did not believe a temporary budget would speed the process.
The temporary budget, he said, "is a safety valve that reduces the pressure to compromise."
"They are no closer today then they were three months ago," added Madonna, a political-science professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.
But Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said he believed the pressure was still on.
"Maybe it's a short respite to gather their thoughts, but it doesn't take away the underlying pressure of interest groups across the state that want to know how this is going to be resolved," he said.
Those interest groups include some of the larger recipients of state money - school districts, hospitals, and wealthy counties, for example. They might have reserves or alternative funding to tide them over for a short time, but they are bound to begin agitating if the negotiations drag on too long.
And there will be no immediate relief for thousands of nonprofit groups and small businesses that rely on state support and provide a wide range of services for families and the elderly. Most of their clients are low-income or in crisis, and the services include health care, counseling, and emergency shelter and transportation.