Pa. Legislature eyes busy last week before summer

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HARRISBURG – Clashes along party lines and between the House and Senate consumed the Pennsylvania Legislature on Monday as lawmakers opened what was expected to be a long, hectic week before they depart Harrisburg for the summer.


Both chambers are scheduled to be in session every day through Sunday, the last day of the fiscal year, as the GOP-controlled Legislature works to finish a new state budget and reach consensus on several priorities of Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican.


Corbett continued to keep a low profile Monday and stayed out of sight in the Capitol as Republican legislative leaders worked to spring key pieces of legislation out of committees.


A potential Senate amendment to the House’s $28.3 billion budget bill was kept under wraps, as senators and Corbett administration officials discussed a plan to send more money to struggling school districts, including Philadelphia, which is laying off 20 percent of its workforce.


Meanwhile, the gears turned on a Senate response to a House bill to privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor business and the House response to the Senate’s $2.5 billion-a-year transportation funding bill.


A House Transportation Committee meeting was postponed at the last minute before a vote on a Republican amendment to substantially scale back the amount of money to be raised for highways, bridges and mass transit systems.


Senators and House Democrats showed their dismay with the proposed amendment. In speeches on the chamber floor, the Senate’s two Transportation Committee chairmen reminded House members that Pennsylvania has a duty to ensure the safety of its roads and to help further commerce.


“Let’s not lose sight of what we need to do,” said Cambria County Sen. John Wozniak, the committee’s ranking Democrat.


Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, said the amendment was “totally inadequate” for solving Pennsylvania’s transportation needs and called it a “nonstarter” for House Democrats.


The House Transportation Committee’s delay was explained as necessary to correct mistakes in the 110-page amendment. But Republicans also acknowledged they needed more time for caucus members to discuss the measure, prompting questions about whether supporters lacked the necessary votes to win committee approval.


“Obviously, this is an issue that’s important to a cross-section of legislators,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin.


Elsewhere at the Capitol, the Senate Law and Justice Committee voted 6-to-5 to approve a Senate plan to liberalize the sale of wine, liquor and beer in Pennsylvania.


But Democrats were unanimous in their opposition to the bill, which is substantially different from a House measure passed in March. For one thing, the Senate plan does not end state control of wholesale wine and liquor services or ensure the state retail stores must close, as Corbett and House GOP leaders have sought.


Half the senators who voted for the bill expressed reservations, and it was unclear Monday whether the plan could win support from either the Senate or the House without some changes.


Later this week, the Senate is expected to consider legislation to enable a federally funded Medicaid expansion under certain conditions, an overhaul of public employee pension systems and the appointment of a new state Supreme Court justice, Correale Stevens.


The House may debate a bill to impose tougher ethics rules and academic standards on charter schools, while reducing about $150 million in taxpayer payments for employee pensions and food services to cybercharter schools over two years.


Corbett also was expected to resubmit a contract to hire a British firm to manage the Pennsylvania Lottery after Attorney General Kathleen Kane rejected his first attempt as illegal.


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