HARRISBURG - In the Capitol, the word hope is heard often these days.

Hope that this year's budget talks will be less divisive.

Hope that an impasse like the one that made history during Gov. Wolf's first year can be avoided.

Even hope that a budget can be signed by the July 1 deadline.

But with less than a month to go, few signs point to an easy or even swift resolution. While the beginning of June traditionally marks the unofficial start of budget negotiations, this is not a traditional year.

As the Republican-dominated legislature prepares to return to Harrisburg this week, many of the same issues that led to last year's tumultuous and protracted impasse with Wolf remain. Despite this stubborn political reality, the Democratic governor and GOP leaders have met only a handful of times in recent months.

"Conversations from our perspective have been few and far between," Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said last week. ". . . We really have not delved into the serious fiscal problem we have in Pennsylvania. We have a long way to go before we get to a budget agreement."

Other legislative leaders and top Wolf administration officials suggest that the situation is not so dire.

They say staffers have been meeting regularly since Wolf allowed the GOP-crafted spending plan to lapse into law in March without his signature. And the tone of negotiations has improved from last year, when the two sides could barely contain their disdain for each other's positions.

"People are talking and getting along better than they were 12 months ago - and I think that's worth noting," said Drew Crompton, the Senate's top Republican lawyer.

But Crompton still acknowledged an ideological gap. "The numbers are still difficult and the demands out of the Wolf administration are still, in my view, extreme," he said. "And there lies the same problem that we had 12 months ago."

Indeed, in unveiling his spending priorities earlier this year, Wolf echoed many of the same ideas that led to the nine-month impasse.

The governor proposed a $33.3 billion budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year that would raise more than $2.7 billion from new or increased taxes to close a gaping deficit and give public schools another funding boost.

Republicans rejected it right out of the box.

Wolf's proposed tax changes include increasing the state's personal income tax and extending the state's 6 percent sales tax to basic cable television, movie theater tickets, and digital downloads; slapping a new, 6.5 percent levy on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale; and increasing by $1 the cigarette tax per pack while also implementing taxes on smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Few see Wolf's getting his way on changes to broad-based taxes such as on income and sales - particularly in an election year for all 203 House seats and half the 50 Senate seats. Raising big-ticket taxes in an election year is considered political anathema and hasn't happened in modern Pennsylvania history.

A source familiar with the administration's position signaled that Wolf is willing to back away from those demands if Republicans can assemble a mix of other ideas to generate new revenue.

What that mix should include has been the focus of staff talks for months, and Republicans have even started to advance proposals to bring in new dollars, including one to legalize internet gambling.

"We certainly still have some work to do, but the talks are ongoing," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny).

Dermody said he thought tobacco taxes would be part of any final revenue package, bringing in $500 million to $550 million a year.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said he would rather not raise new revenue and instead find ways for the state to spend less. Corman and other Senate Republicans have pushed hard for changes to rein in the burgeoning cost of public employee pensions, though that issue has also been mired in political disagreement.

Still, Senate Republicans are navigating budget talks with more caution this year. Many still feel the singe from December, when their GOP colleagues in the House walked away from a tentative deal they struck with Wolf, imploding talks and leaving the budget in limbo for three more months.

For the moment, at least, they are letting the House take the lead.

But House Republicans have shown themselves to be fickle in budget talks. And there are some GOP legislators who advocate bypassing Wolf entirely and pushing through a budget that hews to Republican priorities - fewer taxes and less spending.

In their minds, if Wolf was willing to allow a budget to become law without his signature once, he's likely to do it again.

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said last week that he had heard such talk but doesn't give it much credence.

"We can play this whole 'gotcha, governor' game - but at the end of the day, people expect us to be grown-ups," he said, "and get a budget done."

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