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Budget blues: A broken record

HARRISBURG - For the last six months, the word record has seeped into nearly every budget conversation in the Capitol.

HARRISBURG - For the last six months, the word record has seeped into nearly every budget conversation in the Capitol.

Record funding for public education.

Record relief for pained property taxpayers statewide.

Record overhaul of a state liquor system that dates to Prohibition.

But on Wednesday, the only record that Gov. Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature set was solidifying the longest budget impasse in modern state history.

As legislators headed home for Christmas without a solution for their deep divisions, political veterans struggled to recall when there last was such paralysis and straight-up dysfunction in the Capitol.

Even during prolonged budget battles under another Democrat, Gov. Ed Rendell - he, like Wolf, faced a GOP-dominated legislature, and did so for much of his two terms - the sides worked around ideological differences (and, some would say, egos) to deliver deals.

This week, the former governor said the politics inside the building were different then.

"Many of the members were more transactional than they were ideological," he said.

Steve Crawford, a top Rendell adviser and his onetime chief of staff, said their budgets were also buoyed by the deep political support Rendell enjoyed in the state's southeastern corner. Elected officials there "were quite afraid of his political strength" and reluctant to stand in opposition to him, Crawford said.

And unlike today, more Philadelphia legislators were in leadership posts, helping to grease political differences.

Republicans were also more moderate. While not fans of raising taxes, they were willing to make trades for other issues important to their party.

During his first year in office, Rendell did not get a complete budget until Dec. 23 - a marker that for Wolf came and went Wednesday.

In 2003, the two sides agreed to increase the personal-income tax to close a gaping deficit and send more dollars to public schools.

If the narrative sounds familiar, it is. The tentative budget agreement between Wolf and legislative leaders that unraveled this week would have boosted education funding, likely through a hike in the sales or personal-income tax.

Republicans who control the Senate have said they could support the deal, but only in return for making changes to what Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, once called the "Pac-Man" of the budget: pension plans for state workers and public school employees.

The more conservative-leaning House has balked at both moves. At taxes, because its members don't believe an increase is necessary. At the proposed pension changes that the Senate and the governor agreed to, because they believe those changes are insufficient.

This even though House leaders have publicly declared - several times - that they could deliver votes for the agreement.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) was reluctant to point fingers.

"I don't think we need to get into name-calling. They have their views, and they are strongly held and we respect that," he said Wednesday of House Republicans. "We will continue to work with them. But in the meantime, we wanted to get something to the governor to get our schools funded."

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) blasted House Republicans, blaming them for scuttling the tentative agreement and then skipping town well before it was even dark outside.

"They need to bring their legislative behinds back to Harrisburg," he fumed.

As hopes for the agreement began to recede Wednesday, a violinist stood in front of the Senate chamber, playing Christmas songs.

Benjamin Detrick, who lives in Austria but came home to central Pennsylvania for the holidays, said he traveled to the Capitol at the urging of a friend who is a lobbyist.

Detrick said his friend told him the building could use some cheer.

"I thought this could create some beauty," he said. "Emotions are running high, and I just figured people might want to hear something else in the hallways."

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk