Rep. Grove frustrated by last-minute budget dealing

Staff and wire reports

HARRISBURG — Tax-averse Republican lawmakers tasked with fixing Pennsylvania’s biggest cash shortfall since the recession are hitting a rough patch over how much more gambling to legalize.

FILE - This Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, file photo shows the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Tuesday was the fourth-to-last day of the fiscal year, and leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities remained behind closed doors discussing compromise spending and revenue plans.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said he's a little frustrated that budget talks have taken so long to progress after the House passed its appropriations proposal in early April.

A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Grove said he's hearing the Senate is looking to keep spending about on par with the current fiscal year, which is about $31.76 billion.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $570 million increase in spending, while the House-passed proposal called for a nearly $246 million decrease. If the Senate amends the House proposal, it will likely need to vote on those amendments by Wednesday to ensure the House has time to pass it on concurrence by Friday's deadline, Grove said.

Facing a projected $3 billion deficit next year, Wolf proposed new revenue sources including an increased minimum wage and a severance tax on the natural gas industry — the third straight year he's proposed the tax.

Wolf said Tuesday he's heartened by the civility among both parties in budget negotiations this year, but Grove said the Republican-controlled General Assembly is not going to raise the minimum wage or tax the natural gas industry.

Gambling has emerged as a key piece of the multibillion-dollar revenue puzzle that Republicans are trying to assemble. However, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said House Republican leaders will not sign off on gambling legislation unless it allows slot machine-style video gambling at thousands of bars, truck stops and liquor-license holders.

The Senate has backed a narrower proposal that includes online casino gambling and online lottery play. But Corman said he was trying to find enough support in the 50-seat Senate to pass a compromise gambling bill that includes gambling in bars.

“We haven’t hit critical mass as of yet,” Corman told reporters Monday afternoon.

One discussion involves allowing video gambling machines at bars in counties that do not host a casino, Republican senators said.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, declined to respond directly to Corman’s contention. Earlier this month, the House narrowly approved a bill that would allow a liquor-license holder as well as a truck stop to operate video gambling machines. It would allow as many as 40,000 of the video gambling machines statewide.

Senate Republicans say they need $2.2 billion just to balance a bare-bones budget plan produced by House Republicans.

Supporters say the machines will raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and local governments, benefit a wider range of small businesses and break the hold that the casinos have on Pennsylvania’s gambling industry. Pennsylvania is the nation’s No. 2 commercial casino state, behind Nevada.

The issue is being heavily lobbied in the Capitol, and people with interests in video gambling machines have given campaign contributions to House Republicans. Casino interests are prohibited from giving campaign contributions in Pennsylvania, and most casinos oppose a gambling expansion to bars, except for Penn National Gaming, which runs Hollywood Casino in suburban Harrisburg and owns an Illinois-based video gambling machine operator.

Wolf is counting on an extra $250 million in cash from new forms of gambling. However, his Department of Revenue told lawmakers that allowing gambling in so many new locations would inflict losses on revenue the state gets from the Pennsylvania Lottery and licensed casinos. Just setting up regulatory systems for gambling in bars could take a year or more, the department told lawmakers.

— Staff reporter David Weissman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.