Lawmakers see own funds dwindle as Pennsylvania's state budget fight continues

The country's largest full-time Legislature will soon have to decide where it will get the money to pay thousands of employees and other costs as its surplus, once more than $300 million, is rapidly dwindling amid Pennsylvania's budget crisis.

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The four caucuses' funds are expected to be depleted in the coming weeks or months, thanks in part to the partisan budget standoff now well into its second month. Illinois is the only other state in the country without a budget or temporary spending plan in place.

Democrats, led by Gov. Tom Wolf, are locked in slow-moving negotiations with the Republicans who control both chambers.

"We have enough to reach early September," said House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton. "Several options are under consideration but we have not decided on a particular course of action."

The Treasury Department has agreed to continue paying employees if legislative leaders ask for it, said spokesman Scott Sloat.

"Throughout the impasse we've been paying all employees of all branches," Sloat said. "The legislative branch has been getting paid through the surplus that they have, and the Treasury's position is that all employees, regardless of which branch they are, who work, should be paid. If the Treasury is presented with payroll requests from the proper folks in the legislative branch, the intention is to pay them."

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Senate Clerk Donetta D'Innocenzo described the chamber's financial situation as "a fluid situation. It's changing daily."

She said the Senate expects that its money, now at or below $15 million, will last through September.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said his caucus was considering options that include taking out a line of credit. He said Wolf's veto of the entire budget earlier this summer has raised questions about whether Treasury can transfer money, and whether the state employees that are currently being paid are authorized to run programs in the absence of a legal spending plan.

"If they're just doing what they're doing and spending money, what's the point of having a constitution, what's the point of putting forth a budget?" Miskin said.

There may be constitutional problems with relying upon the Treasury Department — an executive branch agency — to advance money to the legislative caucuses, said Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

"We believe there are some issues there, and concerns with separation of powers and things along those lines," Kocher said.

The simplest solution, of course, would be for the sides to reach a budget deal. Wolf met with lawmakers on Wednesday.

The House and Senate have long defended the surplus as a bulwark against just the sort of budget impasse that's now in place. They began to draw it down steadily after a 2005 pay raise drew attention to legislative operations, but in recent years it had grown again, reaching $161 million as of June 2014.

That was before then-Gov. Tom Corbett struck $65 million from legislative funds last summer, saying lawmakers had failed to sacrifice with the rest of government during several years of tight budgets.

"They filled the budget with discretionary spending and then refused to deal with the biggest fiscal challenge facing Pennsylvania, our unsustainable public pension system," the Republican said at the time.

Pennsylvania has 253 state lawmakers, and its permanent staff of nearly 3,000 ranked first in the country as of 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Despite its full-time status, the Legislature is often absent from Harrisburg — the House has held 52 voting sessions so far in 2015, the Senate 49, with about two dozen more scheduled through December.