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Lawmakers brace for budget criticism

At stake is ending Pa.’s status as only state still fighting over its budget, due July 1.

HARRISBURG — Defending a handshake agreement to end Pennsylvania’s long budget standoff might be as complicated as it was to reach the deal.

More than a week after the deal was reached by Gov. Ed Rendell and top Republican and Democratic lawmakers, proponents are gamely defending it while lobbyists seek changes and rank-and-file lawmakers brim with questions.

Legislators have major wrinkles to iron out and another week or more while aides write the fine print of the agreement into legislation before it reaches a vote. All sides say they plan to stick to the deal and, for the most part, have kept their skirmishes behind the scenes.

Legislative leaders are “steeling themselves for the inevitable criticism that will come from within their caucuses and from the public, but they understand the responsible thing that needs to happen and I think they’ll do the right thing,” said Rendell’s chief of staff, Steven Crawford.

Senate President Joe Scarnati said criticism is to be expected because no solution to an economic disaster, such as the state’s multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall, is going to be painless.

At stake is ending Pennsylvania’s status as the only state in the union still fighting over its budget, which was due July 1. The nearly $28 billion deal announced Sept. 18 avoids an increase in the income or sales tax rates and cuts overall spending by about 1 percent, but leaders are still trying to settle how the money will be spent.

The deal would:

• Divert about $50 million a year in slot-machine gambling revenue from the state’s horse breeders.

• Count on $115 million over two years from leasing more state forest land for gas drilling.

• Slap a sales tax worth about $120 million onto the price of admission to music concerts and other performing arts, museums, historical sites, zoos and parks.

• Raise the capital stock and franchise tax paid by some businesses, a move valued at about $300 million this year.

Legalize table games at casinos, a move valued at $200 million this fiscal year.

Tap more than $800 million in reserves previously meant to help doctors and hospitals pay their medical malpractice insurance premiums.

Saddle fire companies, veterans groups and various other clubs and nonprofits that hold liquor licenses with a 20 percent tax on small games of chance to raise about $20 million.

An outcry has resulted.

Environmentalists and sportsmen’s groups accused budget-makers of selling out the state’s public forests to multinational gas-drilling companies, while letting the drillers escape without being taxed.

Public health advocates and leaders of the state’s arts and culture community were aghast that sales of cigars, loose tobacco and smokeless tobacco maintained an exemption, but tickets to the opera, ballet and small theater groups did not.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society accused the state of taking surplus money in a medical malpractice fund that resulted from excess premiums paid by physicians, hospitals, nurse midwives, podiatrists and nursing homes.

Horse breeders warned of job losses in the agricultural sector if racing days and track purses suffer from a loss of slots money.

Antigambling activists questioned the wisdom of underwriting services by expanding gambling.

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