- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The Pennsylvania House of Representatives returned to session Monday as the fiscal-year deadline ticked down and a vote on the state’s largest expansion of gambling in a decade loomed while lawmakers scrounged for money to prop up spending.

House Republicans were trying to assemble support for gambling legislation that could come up for a vote this week, said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

Supporters tout it as a source of cash to limit the size of a tax increase necessary to meet Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines for wiping out a long-term deficit and aiding financially strapped school districts.

With 10 days until the 2016-17 fiscal year begins July 1, tight-lipped negotiators were reporting no agreements on key elements of a budget, including how much to spend, how to pay for it and whether taxes should go up.

Talks are revolving around a budget of between $31.5 billion and $32 billion, according to Democrats, an increase of 5 percent to 6 percent. One item under also discussion is increasing cigarette taxes.



No budget vote was scheduled, and determining whether gambling legislation is viable will be crucial to figuring out other pieces in a final budget package, Reed said.

A key element would be allowing bars, truck stops and fraternal clubs to host casino-style games on video terminals. It remains unclear whether it can pass the House.

“That’s what we’re about to find out this week,” Reed said.

Its prospects are also unclear in the Senate.

Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said there’s “strong sentiment” in his caucus against balancing the budget on gambling revenue that could be unreliable and damage the state’s collections from lottery sales and casino gambling.

Nearly all of the state’s 12 casinos have lobbied against allowing video terminals into bars, while some casinos are asking lawmakers to allow them to bring casino-style gambling to websites and online mobile applications. Three other states allow such online gambling.

Wolf and lawmakers spent much of the last year mired in a bare-knuckled partisan fight over Wolf’s first budget, an embarrassing crisis that all sides seem determined to avoid repeating, particularly in an election year.

Wolf has proposed a spending increase of $3.3 billion, or 10 percent, to $33.3 billion, paid for by a $2.7 billion tax package, anchored by higher taxes on income, sales, tobacco products and Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

He is seeking a $350 million increase for public school instruction and operations, a 6 percent increase, and the elimination of one-time stopgaps to balance a deficit estimated at $1.8 billion by the Legislature’s Independent Fiscal Office.

Republicans have nixed consideration of any tax increase on sales or income. Reed said Republicans are looking at a budget of below $32 billion and described the sides as being a couple hundred million dollars apart.

Costa said negotiators are close enough to a deal that a budget’s passage is possible by July 1.

“We’ve got some parameters we’re working,” Costa said. “Parameters have been set and we’re just trying to fill in … the revenue side and how those resources would be spent most beneficially.”

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