Budget impasse may lock Pa. government

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HARRISBURG, Pa. – Have a 16-year-old hoping to get her first driver’s license next week? Planning a getaway at a state park? Need a birth certificate for a passport or summer cruise?

Better reschedule.

Barring a breakthrough in the state budget impasse, Pennsylvania government will screech to a halt Monday morning, forcing public campgrounds, driver’s license centers and a host of other services to shutter. It remains unclear whether casinos will be included in the shutdown, thanks to a last-minute lawsuit.

No agreement was reached late Friday.

“I can’t say there was any movement tonight, but we didn’t go backward,” state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said shortly after 11 p.m. after an hour-and-a-half of negotiations.

Asked whether he thought lawmakers could avert a furlough of state employees, House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said he believes that’s up to Gov. Ed Rendell. “It would really depend on how things go.”

Pennsylvanians angry over the potential impact of the impasse on public services called Friday for legislators and Rendell to resolve their stalemate.

“I think they take enough money out of us in taxes that they should have enough left over to keep the state parks open,” said John Carr of Perkasie, after kayaking at Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County.

Campgrounds, swimming pools and bathrooms at state parks and forests are among the services scheduled to shut down Monday.

“Just as we get paid to do our work here, this is what (the lawmakers) get paid for,” state worker Everald McDonald of Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, told The Associated Press. “Somebody’s not doing their job.”

Despite ongoing discussions, lawmakers remained at a stalemate, meaning 25,000 “nonessential” workers face furloughs at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

The last extended budget impasse occurred in 1991 and lasted until August that year, but state law didn’t require furloughs at the time.

“My message to them is hope for the best,” Rendell said of state employees. “Just like I’m doing, hope for the best.”


Only employees responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the public won’t be laid off. So state police will continue patrolling the roads, unemployment and food assistance benefits will be issued, and restaurant and amusement park ride inspections will go on. To pay those workers, the Department of Revenue will continue processing sales tax and income tax returns.

In other words, even though the state will no longer be paying, you’ll still have to.

At Nockamixon State Park, most patrons weren’t happy about the prospect of a shutdown. While her sons Connor, 4, and Dillon 5, frolicked in the park’s popular pool, Audra DelConte said closing the park would be disappointing, especially with a heat wave forecast for next week.

“By the leaders not making up their minds, they are affecting the children of Pennsylvania,” said Sherri McClintock, a mother of four ages 8 to 14. Some people purchased season passes, she pointed out.

At the park’s marina, boaters were greeted with a letter of apology from John W. Norbeck, director of the Bureau of State Parks, tacked to restroom doors.

Closing the park would take a serious bite out of prime family recreation season, said Arlo Eby. “You are talking summertime,” he said after hauling his sailboat out of the water. “You are talking about people enjoying themselves.”

Occupants of the park’s 10 rental cabins would be asked to leave by Monday night. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is notifying people with campsite reservations of the potential furlough and offering refunds, spokeswoman Christina Novak said.

Elsewhere, vacationers needing birth certificate copies for cruises or passports could also run into problems, Health Department spokeswoman Larissa Bedrick said, adding the service won’t be offered during a furlough.

Similarly, drivers will be able to renew their licenses online, but not by mail or in person; PennDOT’s 71 driver’s license centers and 26 photo-only centers would close, putting drivers out of luck.


Hoping to avoid that situation, Carmen Torres and her son, David, waited in a line Friday at the Lehigh Valley Driver Center that stretched out the door and around the corner of the building – 40 or so people biding their time in the sweltering noon sun.

“It’s the only reason we ran out today,” said Torres, who drove David, 17, to the center so he could get his permit before the threatened shutdown. “I heard it was going to happen on the news last night . . . If he doesn’t pass today, he might have to wait a bit.”

Kristin Ingraham, who just moved to Bethlehem, Pa., from Washington, D.C., arrived at the center with her 2-month-old daughter, Tessa. “I heard about the shutdown on the radio,” she said. “I need to get a Pennsylvania license and register this car.”

Supervisor Ron Rhodes hoped a furlough would be averted, fearing crowds once the state reopens. “We could get 500 people easily,” he said, compared with the normal 350 each day.

At the Driver License and Photo Center in Mahoning Township, supervisor Maxine Suhina said a shutdown would frustrate customers with driving tests scheduled next week; it takes six to eight weeks to get a test scheduled.


At the Department of Aging, responses to questions about Medicare Part D would be slower, spokesman Kirk Wilson said, but enrollees in PACE, PACENet and PACE-Plus Medicare prescription drug programs would not be affected.

Besides “health, safety and welfare” segments of the bureaucracy, agencies that get their funding from sources other than the state’s general fund will be unaffected.

Neither the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which receives its funding from the sale of fishing and boat licenses, nor the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which gets its money from hunting licenses and fees, will need to furlough employees.

State liquor stores will also stay open; the Liquor Control Board, which oversees them, is funded by their sales.

Casinos are a notable exception to the “special funding.” The Gaming Control Board and the eight Revenue Department employees who man a computer system monitoring slot machines are paid by fees and taxes on casino revenues, but slots parlors still could close.

That’s because House Democrats, providing Rendell leverage in the budget negotiations, are stalling a bill that would let the gaming board transfer money from a gaming fund to pay the Revenue Department employees.


Casinos filed papers Friday asking Commonwealth Court for an order permitting them to stay open. No decision was reached.

Separately, the Senate president asked the court to compel two Rendell administration officials to testify before a legislative panel on the potential casino shutdown.



(The Morning Call reporters Daniel Patrick Sheehan, Scott Kraus and Kevin Amerman and intern Kari Andren contributed to this report.)



(c) 2007, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-07-07 1432EDT

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