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Another down-to-the-wire push to complete Pa. budget

by Angela Couloumbis & Liz Navratil, HARRISBURG BUREAU

HARRISBURG — No deal.

Both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature convened Saturday for rare, mid-summer sessions but left for the day without an agreement on how to pay for the nearly $32 billion spending plan they passed last week.

Although top Republican senators signaled that all sides were close on a deal to expand gambling as one way to raise new dollars, GOP House leaders refused to commit.

Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said Saturday that part of the gambling agreement calls for creating up to 10 satellite casinos statewide, each with up to 700 slot machines and 100 table games.

“That’s definitely going to be part of it,” Browne said.

The state’s already-licensed casinos would be given the first shot at bidding on running the satellite sites, which would have to be located at least 25 miles from the main casino.

Though Browne said the House had agreed to creating the new mini-casinos, House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin retorted: “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

The clock, once again, is ticking.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has until Monday to decide whether to sign, veto, or allow to lapse into law the $31.99 billion spending bill the legislature approved just hours before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The governor has not said what he would do if he doesn’t have a revenue package on his desk by then that would raise the dollars to fund it.

It was not clear Saturday whether the administration supports creating new casino locations.

The House and Senate are both scheduled to return to the Capitol Sunday, with the hopes of sealing a deal on gambling expansion, as well as other revenue-generating proposals.

A lot of details still need to be worked out.

Budget negotiators have discussed borrowing up to $1.5 billion to cover the gaping shortfall in last fiscal year’s budget — the largest since the recession. The idea is controversial. State lawmakers have discussed paying the loan back using the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow annually into a state fund set up after the landmark settlement agreement with tobacco companies.

Negotiators have also talked about further privatizing the sale of wine, and also, possibly, hard liquor. One proposal would allow beer distributors to sell both wine and hard liquor.

But gambling expansion — and specifically, the scope of it — has been one of the main sticking points in budget talks this year. House Republicans have supported allowing bars, taverns, truck stops, and other establishments across the state with liquor licenses to house up to 40,000 slots-style machines called video gaming terminals, or VGTs.

Senate Republicans have balked at the idea, primarily because they fear it would eat into the business of already existing casinos, which last fiscal year pumped over $1 billion into state and local coffers and programs.

Browne said Saturday that VGTs are not part of the agreement on gambling. Neither, he said, are so-called “games of skill,” an alternative to VGTs, which are described as games of luck.

The lobbying on both sides has been furious.

Several anti-VGT interests  have hired the well-connected lobbying firm of Long, Nyquist & Associates, according to state lobbying disclosure records. The firm has deep ties to Senate Republicans: Mike Long, the firm’s cofounder, was the onetime chief of staff to the Senate’s former president pro tempore; Todd Nyquist was the chief of staff to Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). Long and Nyquist also run a campaign-consulting company that helps elect Republicans, many of them to the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

On the flip side, a pro-VGT company has hired the DT Firm, lobbying disclosure forms show. The firm was founded by Dave Thomas, who was the chief counsel to former House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) as well as Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre).

Maverick Strategies, another Harrisburg-area lobbying firm, also represents a VGT company, records show. The firm was founded by Ray Zaborney, who also runs a consulting arm that helps elect Republican candidates. Among the firm’s top lobbyists is Krystjan Callahan, who was the longtime chief of staff to House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny).

As seen in philly.com (Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News). Story written by Angela Couloumbis & Liz Navratil, Harrisburg Bureau