HARRISBURG - For the first time in eight years, Pennsylvania Republicans have the wind at their backs.
They have a lock on the state Capitol and full control of the policy agenda. They vow to raise no taxes, and there is a push to sell off the state liquor stores. But as Pennsylvania struggles to rise from the recession, lawmakers also have their work cut out for them.
As lawmakers reconvene for their new session this week, no issue looms as large for the General Assembly and the new governor as the gaping budget deficit.
The 2011-12 legislative session starts Tuesday with the swearing-in of 202 members of the House and the 25 newly elected members of the 50-seat state Senate.
With decisive wins at the polls in November, Republicans control the Governor's Office, the House (112 seats to the Democrats' 90, with one vacancy), and the Senate (30 to 19, with one vacancy).
Work is under way in both chambers to prepare the outlines of the agenda for the next two years.
With the legislature, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, who will take office Jan. 18 and deliver his first budget address in March, faces the daunting task of patching a shortfall estimated between $4 billion and $5 billion by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
And no one in this crowd wants to use the T-word. Corbett and his fellow Republicans ran on pledges not to raise taxes.
"Our overriding priority will be an on-time and balanced budget, but that is more easily said, less easily done," Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said. "We have a $5 billion deficit, and a climate in which new taxes are not part of the solution."
Under Gov. Rendell, who engaged in fiscal duels with the Senate's GOP majority during each of his eight years in office, state budgets were perennially late.
Though Rendell sliced several billion dollars from state government operations, he also made a point each year of adding money for basic education. Such options are rapidly narrowing. For one thing, as Pileggi pointed out, the stream of aid from the federal stimulus program is about to dry up.
Corbett said he would look at cutting government programs, trimming the size of the state vehicle fleet, eliminating fraud and abuse in agencies, and selling off assets - such as state liquor stores - to help close the budget gap.
But trimming the fleet and curtailing fraud can account for only a sliver of the billions needed to close that gap. And selling off the liquor stores is no easy political matter.
Notwithstanding his no-new-taxes pledge during the campaign, Corbett has in recent weeks opened that door a bit - at least as it relates to the lucrative (and, to date, untaxed) extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation.
He didn't call it a tax, but Corbett said he would be willing to consider imposing a "fee" on shale drillers, especially to help municipalities cope with damage to the environment and infrastructure caused by drilling.
Pileggi described the discussion on a possible shale tax as ongoing in the Senate.
"Having people involved in profiting from this industry pay something is an idea that is alive in our caucus," the majority leader said.
The Senate Democratic leadership says it is prepared to play defense against any number of Republican budget cuts if they jeopardize investments made in education, health care, and business during Rendell's watch.
"We want to maintain programs that are successful, particularly job training, and maintain the level of social-service programs and educational investment we have," Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said.
Republicans concede pain is inevitable.
"I don't think anyone will say you can reduce spending without impacting the recipients of those funds," Pileggi said.
The new House majority leader, Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), said he would focus on restoring fiscal responsibility and integrity to state government, and on efforts to create more private-sector jobs.
"We want to show that government is not the be-all-and-end-all," Turzai said.
The legislature also must take up the politically charged assignment of drawing new legislative boundaries for state House and Senate districts and congressional districts, fueled by data from the 2010 census.
Pennsylvania will lose a U.S. House seat because of its slow growth, dropping the state delegation to 18.
The drafting of legislation to map out the congressional districts, along with work by a redistricting commission to determine state districts, is set to begin in late spring after population figures are finalized, Pileggi said.
Leaders also said they would take up several issues that had been pushed off, in full or part, from last session - among them the projected "pension bomb" of retirement costs for state employees and public school teachers, and transportation funding needs.
Turzai said he planned to move quickly on one piece of the governor-elect's agenda: privatizing the liquor stores, an initiative that two other governors have tried in the last 30 years.
Turzai brought up the privatization bill in the last session, but it failed to get any traction. He said Thursday that he would reintroduce it very soon as the framework of Corbett's proposal.
Turzai and Pileggi said they would work to improve government accountability, reduce costs, and allow more public scrutiny of state government decision-making and spending.
On that front, Pileggi said the Senate would take action soon on a 10-bill package that includes such initiatives as higher penalties for Sunshine Act violations, and stricter rules for campaign-finance and lobbying disclosure.
In the House, Turzai said he was prepared to institute changes to the structure of daily allowances and car leases for members, as well as first-ever House member contributions to their health-care coverage.
Various rank-and-file lawmakers say they plan to resurrect bills that failed in previous sessions - among them banning text-messaging while driving, a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage, and Arizona-style immigration legislation requiring police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.
The so-called castle doctrine expansion, a bill that would broaden gun owners' self-defense rights, is all but certain to return to the legislative calendar.
Though the bill has its share of opponents - prosecutors spoke out against it, and one former prosecutor, Rendell, vetoed it in November - it has strong support in the House and Senate and from Corbett, not to mention from gun owners and the National Rifle Association.
Which is to say getting the bill signed into law may be a bit easier for the new legislature and the new governor than balancing the budget.