- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The House of Representatives began leaving its imprint on the Senate’s expansive package of budget-related legislation Sunday night, signaling the start of a contentious new week and another new showdown over how to end the state government’s five-month-old budget stalemate.

Pressure to resolve the fight has ratcheted up amid layoffs and closings by a social services sector increasingly crippled without billions in state aid and mounting borrowing by school districts and counties that could exceed $1 billion soon, if it has not already.

On Sunday night, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and House leaders said they were still sorting through hundreds of pages of legislation sent by the Republican-controlled Senate last week in a weeklong sprint to advance a $30.8 billion budget plan.

House leaders stressed that they hoped to wrap up a budget deal this week. After a brief Sunday night session, the House will return Monday.

But both Republicans and Democrats, along with Wolf’s office, are still raising problems with elements of the Senate legislation that, among other things, overhauls public pension benefits, smashes state control over the sale of wine and advances the cause of charter schools.



“We know we’ve got to get a budget passed,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, after leaving a meeting with Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana. “And we’re looking forward to getting it done this week.”

The broad outlines of the Senate’s spending bill are supported by Wolf and House Democrats. It would be accompanied by a $1.2 billion tax increase, the details of which have not been settled or written into legislation.

House and Senate officials said they had made no progress over the weekend in narrowing differences. The lack of a tax bill from the Senate is a key point of contention for House Republicans, many of whom object to the size of the Senate’s $30.8 billion budget bill. Senators want an agreement with the House on tax legislation before holding votes, but House Republicans said the Senate has an obligation to show how its spending plan would be supported.

“I think that’s the responsible thing to do,” said House Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill.

Wolf’s office has sought to put heat on the conservative House Republican majority that revolted last weekend against a budget deal negotiated by House GOP leaders.

“Right now, they are the obstacle getting in the way of a final budget,” Wolf’s press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said Sunday night.

Wolf has demanded a tax increase to deliver a record boost to public school aid - and help wipe out deep education funding cuts in 2011 - while meeting counties’ requests for an increase in social services aid and narrowing a long-term budget deficit.

The Senate’s budget plan met those goals. But it also arrived with surprises that were sparking objections from various quarters.

The governor’s office said it had insisted that a provision affecting the creation of a federally required state plan for reducing carbon emissions from power plants not appear in a massive spending-related bill. It showed up anyway.

House Democrats were unhappy over provisions that could lead to the rapid growth of charter schools, particularly in Philadelphia. Another provision - effectively to require the state to make online math tutoring to available public school students in grades 3-8 - raised eyebrows in the education community.

In one of the changes made Sunday night, the House stripped a Senate provision that would allow ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to operate in Philadelphia, with a 1 percent gross receipts tax to benefit the city’s schools and its parking authority.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s massive pension bill lacked an independent actuarial note - something that is otherwise required by Pennsylvania law - that could shed light on how it would affect the long-term finances of the retirement systems for hundreds of thousands of state government and public school employees.

On Friday, the Pennsylvania School Employees’ Retirement System attacked an element of the Senate’s pension bill that would artificially reduce next year’s state and school pension obligation payments by about $170 million. It would be repaid at a higher, long-term cost.

In a letter to Wolf and top lawmakers, the system’s executive director, Glen Grell, noted that “underfunding” is the largest contributor to its $37.3 billion debt, and he asked them to reconsider it.

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