- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Friday could be an important day in determining whether a sprawling proposal under negotiation by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of the Legislature’s huge Republican majorities will put an end to Pennsylvania’s five-month-old budget stalemate.

House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton, said he expects Wolf to bring details into a private meeting with House Democrats, while Republican senators returning to Harrisburg for the first time since Thanksgiving are expected to get a closed-door briefing on the details that have been settled.

Still, differences persist, and negotiations will blow through Wolf’s request last week for lawmakers to send a budget to his desk before the weekend. The outlines of a prior deal between Wolf and top Republicans collapsed less than two weeks ago, and lawmakers privately wondered Thursday whether the latest proposal will meet the same fate.

Negotiators have largely maintained silence about their discussions, worried that giving details about an unfinished deal would doom it. Meanwhile, the long impasse has sown growing frustration among rank-and-file lawmakers.

“I don’t think anybody has ever seen anything like this,” said House Rep. Bill Keller, D-Philadelphia. “No budget has ever been negotiated like this.”

The Senate has scheduled its members to be in session every day Friday through Wednesday, while the House could follow suit. Some lawmakers expect their work to stretch past Wednesday.

The proposed $30.7 billion spending plan, a 6 percent increase, is being negotiated alongside major changes to state pension benefits and state wine and liquor laws demanded by Republicans.

The spending plan would pack the biggest one-year increase in aid to public schools, and a fight has ensued over how to distribute the new money to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts. To support the new school aid, and help close a long-term deficit, a tax package of hundreds of millions of dollars is required. But it is too small for what many Democrats wanted to fix the state’s finances and is a non-starter for many Republicans.

Many lawmakers also complained bitterly about what they saw as an inevitable watering-down of a plan they initially supported, whether to privatize wine and liquor sales, scale back public pension benefits or make the tax structure more progressive.

A big part of the package could involve removing exemptions under Pennsylvania’s 6 percent state sales tax. Business association lobbyists were out in force in the Capitol’s hallways in an effort to prevent their members from bearing the brunt of a tax increase.

Without official information on the details of a final tax package, lawmakers were left to repeat the little they had been told.

Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, an Appropriations Committee member, said discussions revolved around removing exemptions on personal services such as personal trainers and massage therapists.

“At one time, we were told that candy and gum might lose its exemption,” Hanna said. “Now we’re told it’s going to remain exempt. And that’s the type of thing that’s gone back and forth the better part of probably eight, 10 days now.”

Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, said he had heard about an increase in the filing fee for corporations from $125 to $750. He also has been bombarded by emails from constituents worried about their gym membership or accounting firm being taxed.

“I can’t tell them whether they’re on the list or off the list,” Petri said.

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