HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania lawmakers returned to the Capitol for a sixth consecutive day Saturday as the Republican majority seeks to wrap up an on-time state budget and secure victories for Gov. Tom Corbett's legislative agenda.
Time is running out.
The new fiscal year begins Monday, and House and Senate leaders are hoping not only to pass a $28.3 billion budget by Sunday's deadline but to strike agreements on major legislation to allow the private sale of wine and liquor and generate billions of dollars for roads, bridges and mass transit agencies primarily by increasing motor fuel taxes.
Saturday's session got off to a slow start, as repeated postponements by House and Senate leaders pushed the opening of floor voting sessions from early afternoon to evening while lobbyists, activists, reporters and tourists milled about in the Capitol rotunda as the hours dragged on.
Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, assessed the chances of resolving all the major issues before legislators break for the summer as "pretty good," but said then again, "it could all fall apart in a heartbeat."
Corbett has kept a low profile at the Capitol all week. Legislative leaders were meeting behind closed doors into Saturday evening and giving few details about their discussion. Meanwhile, voting sessions stretching into Monday and Tuesday appeared increasingly likely.
In the House, dozens of amendments were lined up in anticipation of a debate on a bill that would increase the oil company franchise tax to help generate a nearly $2 billion annual increase for highways, bridges, mass transit and other transportation programs. Debate will be on a version endorsed by the House Transportation Committee that is less expensive than a $2.5 billion Senate-passed alternative that would tap the same wholesale tax. Both versions would increase an assortment of motorist fees and fines.
Corbett, who campaigned on a no-new-taxes pledge, opened the door to increasing the tax by making it the centerpiece of the $1.8 billion plan he advanced in February. Senate leaders have made transportation funding a top priority, but a consensus in the more conservative House has been elusive.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans worked into the wee hours of Saturday morning to win a key vote on a bill to privatize wine and liquor sales over Democratic objections, but whether it was enough to win over House leaders who favored a more aggressive approach remained unclear.
The Senate bill would retain state ownership of the lucrative wholesale business of shipping liquor and wine, but allow the state's 1,100 retail beer distributors to buy permits to sell wine and liquor and allow certain other food stores to buy permits to sell wine.
The two issues are indirectly linked: Senate Republicans have made a transportation bill a top priority while House GOP leaders helped lead efforts to privatize the state-controlled liquor and wine system. Several Republican senators said some support for the wine and liquor plan was driven by a desire to encourage House passage of a transportation funding bill.
The Senate also may advance legislation to potentially expand Medicaid eligibility to hundreds of thousands of adult Pennsylvanians under the 2010 federal health care law. The bill won approval from a Senate committee on Friday night, even though support for it is uncertain from Corbett and potentially hostile House Republican leaders.
Republicans have all but abandoned efforts to pass legislation sought by Corbett that makes major changes to public employee pension laws.
Also circulating were proposals that would increase business tax deductions, allow small games of chance at bars and help Corbett make a legal case to Attorney General Kathleen Kane for his contract to hire a British company to manage the $3.5 billion Pennsylvania Lottery.