HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — State senators finished Tuesday what Republican majority leaders viewed as the remaining pieces of budget-related legislation, although Democrats went away frustrated and a controversial bill remained undone eight days after the beginning of the new fiscal year.
The Senate narrowly passed a key budget-related bill, 26-22, that is a companion to the $29.1 billion spending plan that is sitting on Gov. Tom Corbett's desk.
Corbett, a Republican, has until Friday night ends to sign or veto the main budget bill before it becomes law on its own. He has expressed disappointment that public pension legislation he had sought remained stalled in the Legislature and he has not said what he will do with the budget legislation while he waited out a fight between leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities.
Every Democrat has opposed the Republicans' budget bills, and one, Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, took to the floor of the Senate to skewer the companion bill as a "clear violation of the public trust."
The 112-page bill, negotiated behind closed doors by Republicans, guides the distribution of billions of dollars for public schools and hospitals, but also orders up loosely related government functions, such as changing how oil and gas drilling is regulated in the state, establishing a new community college in northwestern Pennsylvania and allowing another $10 fee on certain state court filings.
Other provisions reduce the license fee that bar owners must pay to operate forms of gambling and cement the case for a new round of leasing publicly owned lands for natural gas drilling.
The bill, Ferlo said, was written and passed in ways that violate constitutional provisions designed to fight corruption and ensure transparency.
"We should follow the letter of the law that our constitution provides," Ferlo said. "Many of the provisions of House Bill 278 are simply bad public policy that constitute the whims of privileged members that did not get their measures passed through the typical legislative process."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, defended the bill, saying it is perfectly accessible to the public and that Republicans wrote it to adhere to past court rulings.
"It's relatively easy to read this bill," Pileggi said on the Senate floor. "It's in English, it's in black and white, it's on paper, it's posted on the Internet, it's on every member's desk, and you can easily go line by line through the bill and parse out ... the provisions that are in this bill and convert them from legislative language to plain English."
While the companion bill's passage resolved one fight between House and Senate Republican majority leaders, another bill dealing with municipal tax codes remained in limbo.
The bill includes an authorization for Philadelphia to impose a $2 per-pack cigarette tax to raise money for its cash-strapped schools. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has warned that city schools will not open in the fall without the $80-plus million per year from the new cigarette tax.
While the Philadelphia cigarette tax authorization is no longer controversial in a Republican-controlled Legislature that can be hostile to the state's largest city, other provisions in the wider-ranging bill remain so.
Those include an expansion of an economic development program for small cities that funnels local and state tax revenue into improvement projects and approval for three different local hotel taxes — in York and Washington counties and the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem.
A couple provisions — the Bensalem hotel tax and the expansion of the small cities program — have already been rejected once by the House, and a spokesman for House GOP leaders said Tuesday that it will be very difficult to pass it because of the potential $70 million cost to the state.
The delay in passing the Philadelphia cigarette tax is also harmful because every week that goes by means a loss of $1.6 million in revenue to the city's schools, said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.