HARRISBURG - The final building blocks of a $27.8 billion state budget were moving into place yesterday as Pennsylvania marked its 100th day without a completed spending plan.
Gov. Rendell received the first budget-related bill to sign, a measure laying out how Pennsylvania will raise its cash. It includes higher cigarette and business taxes, but not a controversial tax on tickets to live stage performances or museums, as some lawmakers had pushed for earlier.
The Senate appears poised to send to Rendell's desk today a second key budget component telling how the state will spend the money it raises.
Differences remain on at least one key piece of the puzzle - how much to tax new table games at slot-machine parlors - and that might delay completion of the budget package into the weekend or perhaps next week.
A Senate committee advanced legislation yesterday that would impose a 14 percent tax on blackjack, poker, and roulette. Of that, 12 percent would go to the state and 2 percent to municipalities. The bill would also set a $15 million license fee for the big casinos. A vote on the bill is expected today.
A dueling version in the House calls for a 34 percent tax and a $20 million up-front fee. But legislative leaders have said that negotiations continue and that in the end, the tax rate likely will be in the high teens.
The industry is pushing for 12 percent.
Don Shiffer, lawyer for the Mount Airy Casino Resort, said a team of lobbyists representing the slots parlor was watching every turn of the measure.
"We are waiting with bated breath," he said.
So are gambling opponents, especially in Philadelphia, where the proposed addition of legalized table games is causing a storm. Protesters demonstrated yesterday as workers broke ground for the long-planned SugarHouse casino on North Delaware Avenue.
Helen Gym, an anticasino activist and board member of Philadelphia's Asian Americans United, led a protest at the SugarHouse groundbreaking. "We're doing what we can to expose the bad public policy of expanding gambling at this time, when there's no ban on gambling contributions and when we see a table-games bill that expands rather than curtails predatory gambling," she said.
Lawmakers are also divided over another controversial element in the House version of the bill.
It would allow smaller "resort" slot parlors, including one planned for the Valley Forge Convention Center, to operate up to 1,500 slot machines. That's triple what the current slots law allows.
Three casinos - SugarHouse in Philadelphia, Mount Airy, and the Rivers in Pittsburgh - have threatened to sue the state if the measure is approved. They argue that if resort licenseholders can add more slots, they could siphon away players and eat into the other casinos' profits. Ken Smukler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Casino Association, said the provision could be "a deal-breaker."
The threat of litigation appears to have worked. Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said the 1,500-slot idea was never popular with GOP senators and that the threat of a lawsuit "helped put a stake thought the heart of that idea."
It's unclear when Rendell will sign the one piece of legislation already on his desk. He has 10 days to do so.
The tax legislation would add 25 cents per pack to the price of cigarettes and for the first time tax the little cigars known as cigarillos, increase the capital-stock and franchise-tax that certain businesses pay, and create an amnesty program for those owing the state back taxes.
It does not, however, impose a tax on tickets to plays, concerts, museums, and zoos, or on raffles and other small games of chance run by fire halls and other fraternal groups with liquor licenses.
Those proposals had been part of the initial budget agreement announced Sept. 18 but were abandoned after intense lobbying from arts groups and firefighters.
Also not in the package is a tax that some lawmakers had wanted to impose on natural-gas drilling in the vast formation known as the Marcellus Shale.
Republicans in the Senate - and later Rendell - opposed starting such a tax this year, arguing that it would stunt drillers in an industry still in its infancy in the state.
Taking the microphone during floor debate yesterday, House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) jabbed at his colleagues for not including a tax on gas extraction in the budget.
"My mantra is the Marcellus Shale. He doesn't play for the Lakers," DeWeese said.
Noting that the legislature had never imposed such a tax on coal barons when anthracite was king in the state, DeWeese added, "You have missed a sterling opportunity to avoid the mistakes of our forefathers."
In July, the early days of the budget standoff led to issuance of partial paychecks and the suspension of pay for 77,000 state government workers. In August, Rendell signed a "bridge" budget totaling about $12 billion that cleared the way for state workers to be paid.
But social-service agencies across the state and thousands of employees who work for them have not been so lucky.
Counties, child-care providers, and other nonprofit groups have not received quarterly payments from the state since at least spring, forcing many to take drastic action.
Since then, a broad spectrum of programs that serve vulnerable populations - from prekindergarten and Head Start to drug and alcohol counseling, domestic-violence shelters, and food pantries - have had to lay off staff, reduce hours, cut services, or even close.
On the eve of the 100th day of the stalemate, the House took a step to encourage better communication and other methods of "nonviolent dispute settlement." It unanimously approved a resolution designating Oct. 15 as Conflict Resolution Day in Pennsylvania.
Presumably, all the components of the budget will be settled by then.