Rendell breathes sigh of relief, as FMAP passes

Governor Rendell says he’s “extremely gratified” by today’s 61-38 FMAP cloture vote in the US Senate. The measure still faces two more votes before it goes to President Obama’s desk, but Rendell says there’s “no question” it gets at least 51 votes in the Senate tomorrow. He’s also confident the billions of dollars in federal aid will pass the House. “I think the Blue Dogs, who were the problem originally, were insisting it be paid for,” he said during a conference call. “Since it is paid for, I think we’ll get all of their votes.”

Democratic leaders closed federal tax loopholes and cut spending in other areas, in order to make sure the federal aid didn’t add to the deficit.

When the bill becomes law, it will fill about $600 million of Pennsylvania’s $850 million dollar budget gap. Rendell will meet with legislative leaders next Wednesday to discuss how to trim the remaining money from the budget. He had predicted more than 12,000 public employee layoffs if the FMAP bill failed, but refused to speculate how many people will lose their jobs due to the more limited round of cuts.

Whatever the total layoffs are, they’ll go into effect in September, he said.

FMAP clears key test vote

After months of starts, stops and delays, a bill providing federal assistance to Pennsylvania and other states cleared a cloture vote this morning, with 61 Senators supporting a motion to end debate on the legislation.

Both Pennsylvania Democrats, Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, voted “yes,” and set the stage for a Thursday vote on the bill.

The measure would still need to pass the House, but Pennsylvania officials say they’d expect the bill to easily clear the Democrat-controlled lower chamber. If it’s signed into law, about $600 million of an $850 million gap in Pennsylvania’s budget would be filled with federal money.

Governor Rendell is holding a conference call in 10 minutes. I’ll post his reaction to the vote as soon as the availability wraps up.

FMAP update: an evening Senate vote is scheduled

Governor Rendell and top lawmakers are waiting until later in the week to start cutting up to 850 million dollars from the state budget. In the meantime, they’ll tune into CSAN tonight to see what happens with a Senate vote on the federal assistance.

Rendell and caucus leaders discussed the potential 850 million dollar funding gap during a brief conference call this morning. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says the consensus is to wait and see whether the U.S. Senate can pass a bill authorizing the extended medical assistance in the coming days.

A cloture vote is scheduled for tonight. If 60 lawmakers support the funding boost, a final vote could come tomorrow.

Even if the bill passes, Rendell and leaders will likely need to trim money from the budget. Pileggi says the latest bill would only give 70 percent of the expected aid to Pennsylvania, which means 255 million dollars would need to be cut. Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma says the 70 percent figure is “in the ballpark” of what the Administration expects to get.

The projected best-case reduction is roughly the same size as the basic education increase in this year’s budget, and Pileggi says he and other Republicans expect the boosted school district funding to be the first thing chopped off, when Rendell begins freezing money.  “School districts, over a two-budget cycle, have seen a dramatic increase. And a reduction still puts them well ahead of where they were two years ago,” he argues.

The Senate vote is scheduled for 5:45 PM.

Rendell ready to help Yanks

Governor Rendell is preparing to give a major boost to the Yankees.

No – not the New York team that beat his beloved Phillies in the World Series, but their Triple-A affiliate, who play in Lackawanna County. The team’s stadium, PNC Field, needs major renovations, and Rendell says he’s willing to release 20 million dollars in already approved state bond money to help foot the bill.

The 2008 Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) bill provided $35 million for “acquisition, infrastructure improvements, developments and construction of Lackawanna County Baseball Stadium and adjacent property.”

Rendell’s press secretary, Gary Tuma, says the governor has consistently approved state bond money for minor league stadiums, because he believes they’re “economic catalysts.”

Not everyone feels that way.  House Republican Whip Mike Turzai of Allegheny County says he opposes using public money – especially borrowed funds – to pay for stadiums. “It’s suspect. I think it’s wrong,” he said – ironically from Virginia, where his son’s baseball team is playing in the quarterfinals of the Pony League World Series. “I mean look – have they created jobs in our state? No. I mean they haven’t. If you want to prioritize it, pay for it as you go. If that’s what you think it’s an appropriate expenditure, pay for it as you go.”

PNC Field would be the eleventh minor league ballpark to receive RACP money during the Rendell Administration. Others include Harrisburg’s Commerce Bank Park ($18.5 million in 2009), Centre County Baseball Stadium ($12 million in 2004), and a park in the Lehigh Valley, which received a total of $14 million in 2004 and 2006.

I asked Tuma whether the Yankees’ six-game triumph in the 2009 Fall Classic dissuaded Rendell from giving money to their affiliate’s park.

But Turzai says the Yankees connection does add insult to injury.

I’d point out to Turzai the $20 million in question is just a bit less than what Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira will make this year.

Rendell: basic ed increase a likely FMAP victim

Governor Rendell is angry about FMAP. You can hear it in his voice when he defends his June insistence that the General Assembly include the $850 million of extended federal aid in the state budget.

It’s nearly August now, and Congress still hasn’t voted on the bill. Rendell says he’ll begin the process of slashing the money from the spending plan on Monday, when he sits down with legislative leaders in his Harrisburg residence. In Rendell’s mind, the money should have arrived long ago. “Both houses of Congress passed it in separate bills and the president’s for it. Why wouldn’t you assume it was going to get done? And my guess is it’ll still get done, but I can’t wait.”

What killed – or delayed – FMAP? In Rendell’s mind, the culprit is emboldened Republicans who have seized on the ballooning federal deficit as a campaign issue.  “It became such a talking point for the Republicans,” he said during an interview in his Capitol office today. “Because they passed it once, and they didn’t insist it had to be paid for. And now, all of the sudden, it has to be paid for. They just passed an increase in war funding, and strangely that didn’t have to be paid for.”

Rendell says the impending cuts – in the past, he’s warned up to 20,000 workers may lose their job – “make [him] sick.” “It should have been avoided,” he laments. “For them not to be able to get it done shows the partisan gridlock that’s gripping Washington DC.”

Earlier this week, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said he wanted Rendell to eliminate the budget’s $250 million basic education increase, if the $850 million was being cut out. Rendell concedes the boost he fought so hard for will likely have to go.

Rendell says he recently spoke to  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told him a vote is still possible in September. “If they do, the people that were laid off will be called back to work,” Rendell says.

More from my interview with Governor Rendell — including his take on the Onorato-Corbett race — tomorrow.

Layoff notices go out

The back-and-forth between Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato over unemployment compensation may touch a bit closer to home for state workers tonight.

The state’s two largest public employee labor unions have received layoff notices informing them state workers will be let go in 30 days.

The Patriot-News has more details.

Governor Rendell has warned up to a thousand state employees may be let go due to department cuts in this year’s state budget. He says if Congress doesn’t approve $850 million in additional medical funding, that number could soar to 20,000.

An administration spokesman says “it could be several weeks” before more details about the layoffs are figured out.

Budget bills passed

The House and Senate have approved a fiscal code and other budget-related bills, setting the stage for Governor Rendell to sign Pennsylvania’s spending plan into law on Tuesday.

The measures cleared both chambers Saturday afternoon. Allegheny County Senator Jay Costa, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says the fact the votes took place over the holiday weekend doesn’t take away from the General Assembly’s on-time budget vote.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says a dispute over a legislative fiscal office delayed the vote by “24 to 48 hours,” but points out the fiscal code still wouldn’t have been finished until July, anyway.

He says top Democrats and Republicans have agreed to vote on the creation of the office by October 1 – the same deadline that’s been set for a severance tax vote. Pileggi says the office was worth stalling talks over, arguing it will make future budget negotiations easier.

The House and Senate also voted on two economic development measures, which authorize borrowing for specific initiatives. House Minority Whip Mike Turzai was among the Republicans rankled by the pet projects Governor Rendell worked into the bill, including money for an “Arlen Specter Library” at Philadelphia University, and a “John Murtha Public Policy Center” in Johnstown. “It is the big pot for Walking Around Money,” he said on the House floor.  “I would urge everybody here to vote no. we need to act responsibly. We need to know where money of tax dollars is going to today, and vote accordingly. Not borrow money for projects the governor gets to pick.”

That’s likely the last major legislative action we’ll see for awhile. The Senate is adjourned until September 20th, and the House is gone until September 13th. Rendell wants lawmakers to work on transportation funding over the summer, but it’s unclear whether that will happen.

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