Senate eyes House budget plan that's short of what it wanted
By MARC LEVY
Oct. 23, 2017
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled Legislature on Monday began what could be a long week as lawmakers worked again to try to end a four-month budget standoff with big borrowing and gambling expansion packages to backfill a projected $2.2 billion deficit.
The Senate appeared ready to submit to a House budget-balancing plan that fell well short of what Senate leaders and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had sought.
The House plan, passed last week, contains a grab bag of tax increases that is projected to yield as much as $140 million in a full year but perhaps as little as $60 million. That is a small fraction of the $500 million-plus tax package the Senate had passed in July in an effort to help wipe out Pennsylvania's entrenched post-recession deficit.
Pressing the House for more concessions likely would extend the budget standoff, rather than ending it this week, said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.
"We're not thrilled with it, but it's like everything else, you've got to look at it in its totality," Corman said Monday. "And it isn't how we would have done it, obviously, but it's what they can get 102 votes for and ... that's got to be respected and understood."
The House's budget bill is built around borrowing $1.5 billion against Pennsylvania's share of a 1998 multistate tobacco settlement. With interest, payback likely would cost more than $2 billion over 20 years. The Senate had earlier approved a slightly smaller borrowing package, $1.25 billion.
A vote on the bill could happen as early as Wednesday, and it leaves the question about whether state government will have to confront another substantial deficit in the 2018 election year.
Public finance analysts generally regard borrowing to pay operating costs as bad fiscal practice and a last resort.
The House was set to return Tuesday, with a debate looming this week on legislation opposed by the chamber's GOP leaders to impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Wolf has urged the House to pass it, while the Senate passed its own version of a Marcellus Shale tax in its budget package in July.
Meanwhile, the Senate is eyeing legislation to authorize a big expansion of casino-style gambling in a quest for millions more dollars from license fees and taxes on gambling losses.
A plan under discussion behind closed doors in the Senate could potentially add up to 6,000 slot machines and 500 more table games at 10 new casino locations around the state, while also allowing casino-style gambling online and at airports. No draft of the legislation has been made public.
The state's licensed casinos would be able to bid on the licenses for the new casino locations.
Pennsylvania is already the nation's No. 2 commercial casino state, with a law that authorizes up to 61,200 slot machines and 3,100 table games at 14 casinos. However, only 12 casinos are operating, with about 26,000 slot machines and 1,250 table games, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
The fate of any such legislation is uncertain in the House, where a solid number of lawmakers prefer a gambling expansion that favors bars, not casinos.
That chamber in June passed a bill that would allow as many as 40,000 slot machine-style gambling machines, called video gaming terminals, to operate in thousands of bars, as well as truck stops, bowling alleys, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, fraternal clubs and other liquor license holders statewide.