Pennsylvania House GOP challenges Senate's budget package

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Capitol became suddenly quiet Friday as the House began to consider hundreds of pages of just-unveiled legislation sent over by the Senate in a lurching effort to end the state government's five-month stalemate.

House Republicans showed no signs of willingness to accept the Senate's legislation.

"It's quite a package," House Speaker Mike Turzai told reporters. "There are open issues in each and every area."

The Republican-controlled Senate adjourned Thursday night after a marathon week of passing major bills that authorize $30.8 billion in spending, overhaul public pension benefits and smash state control over the sale of wine. The last bill it passed — a 100-page education policy and school spending amendment — came up for a vote within moments of it becoming public.

The broad outlines of the Senate's spending bill are supported by Gov. Tom 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.

However, the House Republican majority revolted against those outlines last weekend, casting doubt on its viability and leaving lawmakers, lobbyists and others wondering whether the stalemate will stretch into 2016.

The House was scheduled to return to session Sunday evening. In the meantime, thousands of the state's political and business elite flocked to New York to attend the weekend's Pennsylvania Society festivities as layoffs mount at social service agencies struggling without state aid and borrowing by counties and school districts approaches $1 billion.

On Friday, the governor's office sent a sharply worded statement targeting Turzai.

"December 11th, more than 5 months after the deadline for passing a budget, and the House Republicans, controlled by extreme right-wing members that kowtow to special interests, continue to block a bipartisan, responsible budget from passing," Wolf's office said in a statement. "After the actions of several tea party members of the caucus, led by Speaker Turzai, it is now clear that this impasse is on the House Republicans."

Turzai, R-Allegheny, defended himself and House Republicans as the voice of fiscal sanity.

"This governor, as you know, is far to the left," he said. Wolf "asked for $13 billion in tax increases in his opening budget address and does not really ever talk about the hardworking men and women who have to pay the taxes."

House Republican leaders say they will look to reduce spending and its accompanying tax increase, and eliminate a provision in the pension legislation to artificially reduce next year's state government and school district pension obligation payments.

"I think for many members on both the Republican and Democratic sides there are still a lot of open questions in the House," Turzai said.

Turzai objected to the formula used by the Senate to distribute $6 billion in school aid and proposed reductions in payments to charter schools. He also said the Senate's legislation to allow private-sector wine can't pass the House, where Republicans have long sought a stronger privatization measure.

The massive amounts of legislation passed by the Senate also created friction, as well as mysteries.

The governor's office said it had insisted that a provision affecting 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 in Philadelphia.

Another provision left those in the education community scratching their heads about where it emerged from. It would require the Department of Education to provide online math tutoring to public school students in grades 3-8 and train teachers to promote its use.

Meanwhile, the Senate's massive pension bill lacked an independent actuarial note — something that is otherwise required by Pennsylvania law on legislation affecting pension systems — and Senate officials did not provide any information about how they arrived at the conclusion that the changes would save money.

Senate officials also did not provide information showing how the formula in their legislation would distribute about $6 billion in aid to school districts.

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