In budget spat, Pa. governor cuts services; casinos to keep rolling

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Ed Rendell late Sunday ordered a range of state government services shut down and placed about a third of the state work force on indefinite unpaid furlough after frantic last-minute negotiations failed to break a budget stalemate.

A judge, however, ordered that the state’s five slots parlors remain open, at least temporarily.

Rendell, appearing outside his Capitol office, said the shutdown would go forward but added that he was optimistic that he and legislators could come to an agreement within a day.

Pennsylvanians today will no longer be able to take driver’s license tests, state-run museums will be shuttered and casinos will have to stop taking bets. Highway maintenance and a range of permitting and licensing functions will be stopped or severely curtailed, and the lights illuminating the Capitol’s dome will be turned off.

A Commonwealth Court judge, however, halted the closure of slots parlors at least until a Tuesday hearing, said Doug Harbach, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. State Revenue Department workers who monitor the casinos’ computers were among those ordered furloughed.

Critical services – such as health care for the poor, state police patrols and prisons – will be maintained.

The partial shutdown is the result of a battle of wills between the Democratic governor and the Republicans who control the Senate. Without an approved budget, the state has lost the authority to spend money on nonessential services and employees.

One labor leader, David Fillman, the executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his union members, 14,000 of whom face furlough, should not have been caught in the middle of a political dispute.

At Gifford Pinchot State Park in Lewisberry, 70-year-old retiree Janice Sorgen and her family were among those who will have to vacate the park’s 10 cabins and 100 camping spots first thing Monday morning.

“To do it in this manner is ridiculous,” said Sorgen, who drove 500 miles from Fort Wayne, Ind., for a family vacation and visit to the Gettysburg battlefield. “They can just pay us for driving down here and driving back.”

A legal effort by state employees’ unions to put furloughs on hold failed Saturday, but a hearing was scheduled for today.

Legislators said an agreement on the $27 billion-plus budget was near, but that disagreements remain over the governor’s other priorities. Key sticking points include raising the state’s debt ceiling and an energy plan that Rendell has insisted the Legislature approve before he signs the budget, they said.

The centerpiece of Rendell’s energy plan would place a surcharge on electricity use for a fund for alternative energy programs and electricity conservation. Republican legislators and some Democrats oppose the surcharge and accused the governor of holding state employees hostage to force them to approve it.

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