Deal Ends Pennsylvania Budget Impasse
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 9:38 AM
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Thousands of state workers who were sent home without pay were back on the job Tuesday after the governor and legislators hammered out a budget deal.
Nearly 24,000 government employees were furloughed Monday, and state parks, state-run museums, driver-license offices and other non-essential services closed for the day amid a partisan deadlock that held up a state spending plan nine days into the new fiscal year.
After weeks of sharp rhetoric and days of frantic negotiations, both Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican legislators claimed victory with the deal announced Monday night. Rendell outlined progress on issues ranging from health care and transportation to energy and education. Republican lawmakers boasted that they had beaten back seven proposed tax and fee increases.
"This is an agreement where all sides can say that they achieved some of their goals, and that's probably a good budget agreement," Rendell said.
While the new budget isn't yet official, Rendell ordered state employees back to work, confident that he'll soon have the signed documents to be able to pay them.
The 23,562 employees on furlough Monday lost wages of $3.5 million, according to Rendell's Office of Administration. Critical services such as health care for the poor, state police patrols and prisons remained in operation.
"They should really try to compensate us for being off. They should try to give us something," Miriam McCottry, a clerk in the courts department at the state Department of Transportation, said Tuesday morning. "I'm a single parent and I have nothing to fall back on. So that was a pretty devastating time for me not knowing if I was going to have income."
The state budget was estimated at $27.37 billion, close to what Democrats had proposed, an increase of less than 4 percent of the previous year.
However, the total does not include more than $300 million in last year's budget for mass transit that will be moved into a special fund for the same purpose. Rendell said new spending on highways and mass transit will average a total of $946 million a year over the next decade, to be paid for by a toll hike on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 2009 and tolls on Interstate 80.
The governor called it "by far the most significant amount of money devoted to transportation needs in the commonwealth" and said it would shore up roads and transit for the next 10 or 15 years.
The executive director of the largest state employees union said he was pleased the employee furlough lasted only one day, but he said its members should not have been in the middle of a political dispute.
"Hopefully we'll never have to go through this again," said David Fillman of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Rendell said the Legislature would convene a special session on Sept. 17 to address energy policy, including assembling a $750 million fund for alternative energy and conservation efforts. Republicans who opposed a new surcharge on electricity use to fund it said they would come up with the money from existing revenues.
The state will use slot-machine revenues to help fund a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins and expand the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
The budget agreement ended a tense day in the Capitol during which Republican House members took to the chamber floor for more than four hours, in a bit of political theater, to accuse majority Democrats of avoiding a showdown over a stopgap bill to pay state workers.
The closures angered many Pennsylvanians, including Kay George, 53, of Philadelphia, who had to leave Black Moshannon State Park when it was closed Monday.
"I don't care about getting my money back, I just want my vacation," said George, putting her canoe atop her SUV.
Associated Press writer Genaro C. Armas in Philipsburg contributed to this report.