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.

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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.

July slots revenue way up

Slot revenue figures from Pennsylvania’s nine casinos suggest traffic has increased, in the month since table games have been introduced.

Slots generated $116 million in tax revenue for the state last month. Of the eight casinos open this time last year, six saw increased figures, compared to July 2009.

The Sands Casino’s slots revenue jumped 25 percent, while Philadelphia Park’s increased by 19 percent. On the flip side, Meadows slots revenue dropped 20 percent, and Harrah’s stayed about even.

Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach attributes the slots uptick to table games.

Earlier this week, the Revenue Department announced table games produced $1.6 million dollars worth of tax money in July. That’s below the $6.2 million dollar monthly estimate, but Harbach says the figure only covers a stretch of about two weeks.  “The way this is working for table games is the Revenue Department isn’t requiring the casinos to report their final figures for a month, until the 20th of the following month,” he explains.  “So until they get it, then we get it, it will be after the 20th of each month until we get a reconciled figure.”

Slots are taxed at a 55 percent rate, while table games are subject to a lower 16 percent levy.

Politics as Usual

On this week’s pod, we debut the “Politics as Usual” book club, with a chat about Grant Wahl’s “The Beckham Experiment,” which chronicles the English superstar’s first two seasons with the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS.

We also tackle:

-What’s happening with FMAP, and when Governor Rendell and legislative leaders will start trimming money from the budget.

-When, if ever, Dan Onorato, Tom Corbett and Joe Sestak will join Pat Toomey on the airwaves.

-Whether or not the General Assembly will give Rendell a single vote on his transportation initiatives.

You can hear the podcast over at Capitol Ideas.

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.

PA casinos fight for NYC-area customers

The New York Times takes a look at how table games at Mount Airy and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs are suddenly drawing more tourists from the New York area. But at the same time, casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey are stepping up the competition.

This is the type of paragraph state budgeters like to see: Jimmy and Lana Ting go to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut or Atlantic City three times a month. But on opening day for table games at Mount Airy, they boarded a special gamblers’ bus in Flushing, Queens, for the trip to the Poconos. “It’s closer,” said Mr. Ling, who favors Pai Gow, or double-hand poker.

This one? Not as much. Asked if he would return to Mount Airy, Leung Yiuwah, a double-decker bus driver from Brooklyn, hesitated. “It depends on my luck,” he said with a grin. “I have a lot of choices. The competition is very great.”

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.