Tuesday, July 10, 2007

HARRISBURG — Legislators reached a deal in the state budget impasse last night that would end the government employee furloughs, said state Sen. Vincent Fumo.

Scores of state parks, state-run museums and driver’s license offices across the state were shuttered yesterday after Gov. Edward G. Rendell took the unprecedented action of furloughing nearly 24,000 state employees without pay because of a partisan deadlock that held up a state budget nine days into the new fiscal year.

The deal would address some of Mr. Rendell’s health care and energy initiatives but would not impose the surcharge on electric rates the governor had sought, said Mr. Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat.

“I rate it good,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

A late-night press conference was planned involving the governor.

Without a budget, the state lost the authority to spend money on “noncritical” services and employees. Highway maintenance, document-processing services and a range of permitting and licensing functions were curtailed or stopped altogether.

At issue are a spending plan that is expected to be about $27 billion and a list of Mr. Rendell’s priorities, including a sprawling energy policy, that he has insisted the legislature approve before he signs a budget.

At Hawghead Baits near Lewisberry, just a few customers came through the door yesterday morning — including a couple of fishermen who bought minnows before realizing that the nearby Gifford Pinchot State Park was closed.

“It’s usually packed in here,” said Kevin Corbin, a clerk at the bait shop about a half-hour south of the Pennsylvania capital. “Today, I’ve gotten a lot of cleaning done. I hope it don’t last too long — they won’t be able to pay me.”

The state’s critical services — such as health care for the poor, state police patrols, emergency response and prisons — are being maintained by the 52,000 workers whose jobs were designated as critical. Those workers are continuing to work and are being paid as usual.

The centerpiece of Mr. Rendell’s energy plan would place a surcharge on electricity use to fund for alternative-energy programs and electricity conservation. Republican legislators and some Democrats oppose the surcharge and have accused the governor of holding state employees hostage to force them to approve it.

“I can’t believe that a man who would call himself governor would do this to state employees,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican.

The Rendell administration lowered the reported total of employees on furlough, from more than 24,000 to 23,562. Their wages are $3.5 million a day, according to Mr. Rendell’s Office of Administration. The furloughed workers won’t be paid for the time they are off but will continue to be covered by the state’s health plan, at least temporarily.

In state Commonwealth Court yesterday, lawyers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most of the displaced employees, and two smaller unions urged a judge to halt the furloughs.

Senior Judge Barry Feudale promised to issue a decision today.

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