HARRISBURG - In the days since legislative leaders and Gov. Rendell announced they had struck a long-overdue state budget deal, aides have been toiling behind the scenes in the painstaking process of finalizing voluminous details.
The nuts and bolts are spread out over more than a dozen bills, from a tax code to a welfare code.
"Very little is 100 percent, locked-in-stone at this point," Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said yesterday. "A lot of it is going through hundreds of pages of documents line by line. A lot of staff have rulers that they slide down the pages to make sure every comma, every letter, every dollar is correct."
Or, as Johnna A. Pro, press secretary to House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), put it, "It ain't sexy."
"It's tedious, mind-numbing work that will make you go cross-eyed," she said. "But it's necessary."
The package - announced Friday night, 80 days late - calls for roughly $28 billion in spending for the fiscal year that began July 1. The deal calls for increased business and cigarette taxes and legalization of table games at the state's slot machine parlors.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said top legislators were still negotiating details of two budget-related bills - to legalize poker, blackjack, and other table games at slot parlors, and to tax the profits from small games of chance at social clubs and the like.
"There are a lot of things out there that need to be reconciled," Scarnati said.
A Senate committee took testimony yesterday from casino executives who warned that placing too high a tax on table games would limit their expansion plans and eat into much-needed new revenue that the state is counting on from the games. Such a tax rate is among the unresolved aspects of the budget.
Officials expect the prep work to continue for several more days. Even the most optimistic time frame doesn't put the budget on Rendell's desk for his signature until the end of next week.
Meanwhile, as the behind-the-scenes work lumbers on, lawmakers face continued criticism of key budget items.
Environmentalists are upset about a plan to open more state land to gas drilling. Social clubs are irked about Harrisburg imposing new taxes on pull-tab games and raffle tickets - time-honored methods of fund-raising for many of them.
But the most vocal outcry has come from cultural groups across the state who have complained about budget negotiators' late-announced plan to slap a sales tax on tickets to plays, concerts, museums and zoos.
Yesterday, members of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance spent the day in Harrisburg, meeting with Rendell and legislative leaders in an effort to fend off the tax.
Julie Hawkins, alliance policy maker, delivered a pointed message: The tax would cripple an already recession-beleaguered arts community and would fail to bring in much revenue, at least from nonprofit groups.
Using figures gleaned from the Pennsylvania Cultural Data Project, researchers from the alliance contend that the proposed tax would only raise about $13 million annually from the state's 4,900 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.
Budget negotiators have said that when combined with other ticket sales, primarily those of major concerts at stadiums and other large venues, the tax could generate upward of $100 million annually.
An alliance official who declined to be identified by name characterized yesterday's meetings with Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders as "constructive" but did not offer details.
Scarnati said he didn't expect the lobbying efforts to change the deal.
The bulk of the tax, he said, would go to a separate fund to be used for grants to the arts and reduce the exposure such groups face from future cuts in state funding.
"This wasn't in any way to slap them or hurt them," he said of the arts community. "This was a way to give them a positive . . . a dedicated funding stream."
But the details of that dedicated funding stream? They're still being worked out.