HARRISBURG - The Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Senate will pass a budget by Wednesday night's deadline, their leader says. It just may not be the one the Rendell administration wants.
Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said Monday that the Senate was prepared to approve a $27.8 billion spending plan, whether Gov. Rendell agrees to it or not. That plan likely would include a modest increase for basic education, but not nearly as much as the governor is seeking.
Pileggi said that whether Pennsylvania got a state budget on time - and avoided the kind of protracted battles that marked the first seven budgets of the Rendell administration - would depend on how flexible the governor was.
"Fewer than 60 hours remain for the commonwealth to pass its first on-time budget for the last eight years," Pileggi said at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon. "Will it happen? Perhaps. . . . It will depend solely on the reasonableness of the governor."
His comments came amid daylong talks between the administration and legislative leaders. By Monday night, both sides were reporting that they were narrowing their differences.
Pileggi, taking a dinner break at 8:15 p.m., told reporters of "steady but excruciatingly slow progress."
Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma declined to comment on Pileggi's earlier description of where things stood, but said: "The differences have narrowed considerably. We are optimistic we can get a budget soon."
On Saturday, both parties' legislative leaders appeared close to striking a compromise on how much to spend in the fiscal year that starts Thursday. But talks broke down the next day when legislators began hashing out details.
Pileggi said at the Monday luncheon that all sides had reached a rough accord on a number - a budget of just more than $28 billion. But then the governor had produced a list of how he wanted to spend those dollars and "that discussion broke down," Pileggi said.
In dispute, he said, were how much to increase basic-education funding for public schools, and various details of Rendell's proposal to tax natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation - including how to spend the revenues resulting from such a tax.
Pileggi also said the two sides have haggled over how to deal with the fact that Congress appears unlikely to fork over $850 million in federal Medicaid funding to Pennsylvania.
The administration wants to approve a budget that assumes the federal money will come through. Senate Republicans have insisted any budget deal specify where cuts will come from if those funds do not materialize.
One area where everyone involved in the negotiations agrees: Losing that money would translate into deep cuts and layoffs. Rendell has predicted 20,000 state, county, and municipal employees, as well as public school teachers, could lose their jobs.