Those wondering what their York County legislators are up to right now might watch the Internet video meme of "Octopus Houdini," a worked-up cephalopod squeezing through what seems to be an impossibly small hole so he can escape from a boat and return to water.
Trying to pass a $28 billion budget on time without tax increases while starting more than a billion dollars in the hole is a process Rep. Seth Grove sums up with the word "ugly."
Tax revenue is lower than expected as the state still rebounds from recession and, depending who's asked, there's a deficit of between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion. Lawmakers are "predicating everything on one-time revenues," roughly the same fixes Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in his budget in February, said Grove, a Dover Township Republican.
Corbett, facing dismal November election poll numbers against favored Democratic candidate and Yorker Tom Wolf, is under pressure to spend more state money on education — one of the issues on which polls have shown unfavorable ratings.
Raising money: Corbett, Grove, and other members of the majority party in both chambers have resisted a severance tax on natural gas drillers in the state's Marcellus Shale formation, but some have started to turn to the idea for the potential income.
Also on the table are expanding the sales tax and raising taxes for cigarettes and e-cigarettes, but Grove said he's opposed to any of the proposed taxing ideas.
"Why put any new taxes on the table when liquor privatization has been sitting in the Senate since March?" Grove asked.
Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said he's "open to listening" to discussion about new taxes, but he first wants to make cuts and advance privatization.
But the House proposal to raise money through the sale of the state's liquor stores has languished in the other chamber, where Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin/York, plainly asserts it's just not going to happen.
"(The House) might be looking at it, but our Senate delegation isn't going to budge," he said, adding there aren't enough GOP votes to pass the bill in the Senate.
Teplitz supports modernization of the liquor model; he said selling the assets would create a one-time revenue, but it would strip the state of the income it would earn from the stores in future years.
Severance tax: Teplitz said he would support a plan that created a severance tax and combined that income, about $500 million, with another $500 million generated from an expansion of Medicaid. The GOP has been slow to warm to both ideas, but Teplitz said some hesitancy is being replaced by "realism" as legislators stare into the budget void.
"If there are no new revenues, it becomes a much harder discussion as to how to cut a billion and a half dollars from a budget," he said. "Reasonable members on (the GOP) side are talking about new revenues and cuts. If we struck that balance in an appropriate way, we may be able to get the budget done on time."
June 30 is the end of the fiscal year.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon/York, is among the Republicans "willing to consider" a severance tax, he said, but he issued a warning.
The impact fees: "That money has been spent 10 different ways already," he said. "And you can only go to that well so often."
Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, also said he would consider enacting the tax. His biggest concern is the tax's effect on an impact fee that's already charged in lieu of a tax.
Some of the impact fee is given to every county, regardless of whether there's drilling there, for recreational and environmental projects. York County alone has been allocated more than $1.1 million over the three years the fee has been distributed.
Saylor said it would be unwise to charge both an impact fee and a severance tax because drillers could leave the state.
"When you have as much natural gas as we have in this country ... they don't have to pump it out of Pennsylvania," he said. "If you get carried away, these people are going to shut down their operations."
The money for York and other counties could be paid out of a severance tax, Saylor said.
He estimated a 5 percent severance tax would generate $600 million, which he said is enough to ensure the counties didn't lose the money they were given through the impact fee.
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.