Lawmakers prepare for July budget vote

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania lawmakers began preparing Monday to blow into a new fiscal year without a spending plan in place as Gov. Tom Corbett sharpened his stance that he will not sign a budget until major legislation overhauling public pensions and the sale of alcoholic beverages reaches his desk.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware said he has told rank-and-file Republicans to prepare to be in the Capitol in July because it is unlikely a new state budget will be approved before the fiscal year ends June 30.

No major action in the Republican-controlled Legislature was expected this week. Top Republicans have worked behind closed doors for the past few weeks to assemble a budget plan and corral votes on legislation to restructure the state’s public employee pension systems and liberalize the sale of beer and liquor.

The big problem is this: Weak tax collections have left a shortfall of at least $1.2 billion in Corbett’s original $29.4 billion budget proposal. Other problems include teetering assumptions in Corbett’s budget that have widened the potential hole to nearly $2 billion.

Corbett has kept a low profile and has not said how he would close the gap.

But the Republican has put himself in a position to break a campaign pledge to sign budgets on time by threatening to withhold his signature from a budget bill until lawmakers pass legislation on pensions and alcoholic beverages.

“The governor is prepared to stay as long it takes” to achieve those goals, even if it is past the June 30 end of the fiscal year, press secretary Jay Pagni said Monday.

Corbett, who is running for re-election with low public approval ratings, has little political capital with the Legislature right now to push his policy priorities.

The leading GOP proposals on pensions and alcohol have stalled. Democrats oppose both bills, and their leaders continued to wait Monday to be invited into negotiations on a budget that Republicans may need Democratic votes to pass.

Democrats are applying heavy pressure on Republicans to address the budget gap by expanding Medicaid eligibility under the 2010 federal health care law and raising taxes on things like the booming natural gas industry and sales of tobacco products. But Republicans have also shied away from a budget plan that would balance by making across-the-board spending cuts and cash transfers from a slew of politically sensitive grant programs.

“Unless the Republicans follow through on a budget that simply includes cuts to everything, at some point they need to face reality and begin a serious discussion with Democrats,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, R-Allegheny.

A budget that increases taxes also would break another campaign pledge by Corbett – his administration has raised taxes and fees several times already. But, at this point, he is not ruling it out.

Corbett “will explore options,” Pagni said.