Resolution to Pennsylvania's budget stalemate remains unclear as Thanksgiving break ends

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Talks between Gov. Tom Wolf and top lawmakers continued Monday as the Thanksgiving break ended, but there was scant detail and a lot of silence about how they intended to end a five-month-old budget stalemate.

Lawmakers were not in voting sessions Monday as aides continued to meet to reach consensus on a sprawling budget package. It also seemed certain that lawmakers would not be ready to put a budget package on Wolf's desk by Friday, as he had requested a week ago.

"We just have to work through one issue after another, but certainly there are a number of unresolved issues, some very small, some very consequential," said Drew Crompton, a top aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, told Republican senators in a Monday memo that a Wednesday voting session was canceled because "we will not be ready to begin budget deliberations and voting."

The House was to resume session Tuesday.

The first-term Democratic governor and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature are saying little about their talks, including where they will find the money to narrow a long-term budget deficit and pay for a big boost in education spending sought by Wolf.

Three weeks ago, Wolf and top lawmakers announced they had struck a deal on the broad outlines of a budget agreement. It included a spending plan of about $30.75 billion, up about 6 percent, that included $350 million in new money for public school instruction and operations, an increase of about 6 percent.

Negotiators have not settled the politically thorny question of which of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts will benefit the most from the new aid.

They also have the task of developing a cash package of about $600 million or more to prop up the budget. Some of the money may come from expanding the sales tax to the purchase of goods and services that are currently exempt, lawmakers say.

Senate Republicans have pushed to refinance some the state's pension debt as part of a broader Republican plan to overhaul benefits for state and school employees. Refinancing the debt could save money in the near term, but House Republicans opposed a similar proposal earlier this year because of the higher cost it creates later.

The pension legislation would create a new 401(k)-style benefit for employees and slash the traditional pension benefit. It is opposed by labor unions, which warned that any changes the forthcoming legislation is expected to make to the benefits package of current employees are unconstitutional and will spur a lawsuit.

"We will challenge that," vowed David Fillman, executive director of Council 13 of the Harrisburg-based American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Also up in the air are changes to the wine and liquor store system, hung up on disagreements between House and Senate Republicans.

Wolf also had sought to pare back school district payments to cyber charter schools, while Republicans have pressed for the creation of a state board that can take over poorly performing schools or convert them into privately run charter schools.

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