Pa. budget stalemate causes partial government shutdown

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania campers were bitter about being kicked out of their spots at state parks and people showing up at driver's license offices were stunned to find them closed by a partial government shutdown Monday.

Scores of state parks, state-run museums and driver-license offices around the state were shuttered Monday after Gov. Ed Rendell took the unprecedented action of furloughing nearly 24,000 state employees without pay because of a partisan deadlock that is holding up a state budget nine days into the new fiscal year.

Without a budget, the state has lost the authority to spend money on "noncritical" services and employees. Highway maintenance, document-processing services and a range of permitting and licensing functions were curtailed or stopped altogether. Even the lights illuminating the Capitol dome were to be turned off.

At issue are a spending plan that is expected to be around $27 billion and a list of Rendell's priorities, including a sprawling energy policy, that he has insisted the legislature approve before he signs a budget.

Republican House members took to the chamber floor Monday to accuse majority Democrats, who did not come into session, of avoiding a showdown over a stopgap bill to pay state workers through July 30.

The state's critical services -- such as health care for the poor, state police patrols, emergency response and prisons -- are being maintained by the 52,000 workers whose jobs were designated as critical. Those workers are continuing to work and be paid as usual.

The state's five slots-only casinos, which employ about 3,500 people, had been threatened by the furloughs, but won a reprieve thanks to a court order Sunday.

The Rendell administration lowered the reported total of employees on furlough, from more than 24,000 to 23,562. Their wages are $3.5 million a day, according to Rendell's Office of Administration.

The furloughed workers won't be paid for the time they are off but will continue to be covered by the state's health plan, at least temporarily.

In state Commonwealth Court on Monday, lawyers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most of the displaced employees, and two smaller unions urged a judge to halt the furloughs.

The unions contend that the Rendell administration's classification of state employees into "critical" and "noncritical" groups violated collective bargaining laws and that it did not provide lists of noncritical employees until recent days.

Administration lawyer Frank Fisher defended the classification process as rational and legal, and said the unions knew well before last week those decisions were being made.

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