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Rendell to try to get cash flowing

Gov. says he decided to pursue interim plan after talks with GOP leader.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Ed Rendell said Monday that he will look for a way to speed money to pay for Pennsylvania’s state government operations so that tens of thousands of employees don’t miss more paydays during an entrenched budget impasse.

Rendell said he decided to pursue an interim budget that is whittled down to the essentials after informal talks over the weekend with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, made it clear that any agreement on an approximately $28 billion budget still is far away.

“I have asked the staff to present me with options for getting the government back to work, and I hope to have a decision made on that in the middle of the week,” Rendell told reporters.

Rendell, a Democrat, would not discuss the options he is considering or how much money would be required.

Still, a budget that strictly pays for salaries and some administrative functions would leave in limbo billions of dollars for public schools, state universities, social services, hospitals, museums, libraries and more while budget negotiations continue.

It is not clear whether Rendell can find a way to disburse money for general government operations without legislative approval or whether he could even get legislative approval by Friday, when 33,000 state employees face their first payless payday.

In recent weeks, state employees have demonstrated at state offices across Pennsylvania — another large rally was planned for today in Harrisburg — and prompted fingerpointing in the Capitol over who is to blame.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor said it had begun investigating whether Pennsylvania has violated its employees’ rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act by ordering them to work without regular pay.

The department received more than 1,500 calls, a spokeswoman said.

Payroll costs about $3.6 billion annually, according to administration figures. The entire state budget in the just-finished 2008-09 fiscal year was expected to be about $28.1 billion.

Pennsylvania is just one of three states without a budget during the current fiscal year.

With the impasse beginning its fifth week, the state is now deeper into the fiscal year without an enacted budget than in any other year since 1991 — although it took until December in 2003 to complete a public school subsidy.

Democrats and Republicans are quarreling over the size of the state budget, with fundamental disagreements over whether taxes should be raised to support state spending on education, health care and more.

Since the July 1 beginning of the fiscal year, the state has been stripped of its power to pay bills and meet its payroll.

Thousands of vendors are going unpaid, while nearly 80,000 state employees have received partial paychecks on the last two Friday paydays because the state is not authorized pay them for days worked after June 30.

The state’s welfare checks, debt payments and pensions will continue to be sent out and self-funding agencies, such as the Liquor Control Board, will not be affected. State parks remain open and many highway projects, paid for in the 2008-09 budget, are continuing.

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