HARRISBURG - The next state budget is not due for two months, but after last year's gridlock, legislators on Monday took a step toward preventing a repeat of the stalemate that kept school funding bottled up for months.
Returning after a two-week recess, members of the House Education Committee approved a bill that would keep school funds flowing if a budget is not enacted by Aug. 15 - six weeks after the next fiscal year starts July 1.
The governor's office and Republican legislative leaders were not admitting the need for such an insurance policy. One opponent suggested the measure might lessen the pressure to pass a spending plan on time this year.
But one thing is certain: Neither side appears to have moved away from the hard-and-fast positions staked out during the historic impasse.
Gov. Wolf still wants a broad-based tax increase to raise enough money to close the deficit and increase funding for public schools. Republicans who control the Assembly still say that tax increases should be a last resort and that a mix of cuts and smarter budgeting would produce a good plan.
Last year's battle included several tentative deals, collapses, and vetoes, ending when Wolf declined in March to veto or sign the GOP's latest proposal, completing a budget of about $30 billion. Instead he pledged to renew the fight this budget season.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said the parallels between the years - the personalities and issues remain the same - could help the process this time around. In Harrisburg, it often takes a few tries to reach a consensus.
"Last year, you had a new governor, new leadership in the House and the Senate, you had a new legislature, and you were starting from scratch," he said. "This year we're not starting from scratch."
Talks have quietly been going on for weeks. Wolf's spokesman said the governor had hopes for an on-time budget. "We believe the tone of discussions [is] very positive and that everyone is committed to reaching an agreement on a '16-'17 budget as expeditiously as possible," spokesman Jeff Sheridan said.
Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said, "No one wants to live through that again."
But she said that does not mean the GOP's aversion to broad-based taxes has changed. "They are viewed as the last resort," said, "not the first place we turn."
At the Education Committee meeting, all Republicans and a handful of Democrats supported the proposal to keep education money flowing.
Schools were among the most visible victims of last year's budget fight. Statewide, districts had to borrow nearly $1 billion to stay open and pay bills, the auditor general has estimated.
"We are never going to make up those millions of dollars that were paid in interest by those school districts," said the committee's chairman, Stan Saylor (R., York). "This bill at least protects those children, to make sure that our education system continues to work."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, said the bill would create a disincentive for lawmakers. "It seems really to reduce any urgency to resolve a state budget crisis or state budget negotiation in a timely manner," he said. "And it does it in part by locking in place a previous year's budget."
In the Capitol rotunda, educators and parents rallied for an increase in education funding and the permanent enactment of a fair funding formula.
"I don't think there's anyone in this building, whether they're me, a child advocate, or an elected official that doesn't want to see an on-time budget, that doesn't want to see that budget be fair, and doesn't believe that we should be supporting public schools," said Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said after the rally.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph (R., Delaware) said he would call for negotiations to resume as soon as possible. "There was nothing good regarding that impasse," he said. "When you look back on it, you'd like to learn from your mistakes, and hopefully we're able to avoid those for this year."
Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny) said he believed the Capitol gridlock reflects the ideological split nationwide between "smaller government, less taxes, or big government, more taxes."
"One side wants to go south, one side wants to go north, and the compromise isn't to go east. We have to decide which direction to go."
He sids there are proposals both sides will accept. Saccone has called for cutting spending 1 percent across all departments.
"It can be done," he said. "It's just a matter of having the discipline to do it."