Thousands of state workers who were sent home without pay were allowed to return to their jobs Tuesday, a day after the governor and legislators hammered out a budget deal.
Nearly 24,000 government employees were furloughed for a day and state parks, state-run museums and driver-license offices closed during a partisan deadlock that held up a state spending plan nine days into the new fiscal year.
After weeks of sharp rhetoric and days of frantic negotiations, both Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican legislators claimed victory on their objectives as the deal was announced Monday night.
Rendell outlined progress on issues ranging from health care and transportation to energy and education. Republican lawmakers boasted that they had beaten back seven proposed tax and fee increases.
Rendell ‘very satisfied’
“This is an agreement where all sides can say that they achieved some of their goals, and that’s probably a good budget agreement,” Rendell said, declaring himself “very satisfied with where we came out.”
The budget total was estimated at $27.37 billion, close to what Democrats had proposed, an increase of less than 4 percent. The total does not include more than $300 million in last year’s budget for mass transit that will be moved into a special fund for the same purpose. The tab, which will average a total of $946 million a year over the next decade, will be footed by toll-paying motorists.
The governor called it “by far the most significant amount of money devoted to transportation needs in the commonwealth” and said it would shore up roads and transit for the next 10 or 15 years.
Approval of the deal requires a vote by the full Legislature. Some finer points must still be worked out.
The executive director of the largest state employees union said he was pleased the employee furlough lasted only one day, but said its members should not have been in the middle of a political dispute.
“Hopefully we’ll never have to go through this again,” said David Fillman of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Special session likely
Rendell said the Legislature would convene a special session on Sept. 17 to address state energy policy, including assembling a $750 million fund for alternative energy and conservation efforts. Republicans who opposed a new surcharge on electricity use to fund it said they would come up with the money from existing revenues.
Rendell also said a Senate vote on $500 million for biotech investment would occur by Nov. 1.
The state will use slot-machine revenues to help fund a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins and expand the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. There was not an agreement on a bill to add $500 million to the borrowing limit for redevelopment projects.
Pennsylvania’s five slots casinos came close to closing during the budget stalemate because of Revenue Department furloughs, but a judge put that decision on temporary hold, and the settlement made the issue moot.
The agreement ended a tense day in the Capitol during which Republican House members took to the chamber floor for more than four hours, in a bit of political theater, to accuse majority Democrats of avoiding a showdown over a stopgap bill to pay state workers.
The deal means a restoration of state services, putting thousands of highway maintenance workers back on the job during the height of roadwork season.
The closures left many Pennsylvanians seething, including Kay George, 53, of Philadelphia, who had to leave Black Moshannon State Park when it was closed Monday.
“I don’t care about getting my money back, I just want my vacation,” said George, putting her canoe atop her SUV.
Despite the partial shutdown, such critical services as health care for the poor, state police patrols, emergency response and prisons were maintained by the 52,000 workers whose jobs were designated as critical.
The 23,562 employees on furlough Monday lost wages of $3.5 million, according to Rendell’s Office of Administration. Rendell said “options that we have to lessen the impact” were under consideration and that he planned to announce something in the coming days.