Governor Casey looms large in highly political Pa. budget battle

July 14, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Correspondent

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Jeff Benson, a 38-year-old supervisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, canceled his family's vacation this summer, isn't sure he will be able to buy the house he agreed to purchase last month and wonders each day how long the commonwealth will keep paying his salary.

Eileen Myers, a social worker and single parent supporting three children on $325 a week, walks three blocks to the supermarket every other day rather than spend the money to put gas in her car.

Diane Johnson, an outreach worker and the mother of four children, is looking for work after being laid off last week by the Employment Project, a Philadelphia-based agency that depends on state funds to help the homeless find housing, jobs and counseling.

"I'm back on welfare," said Mrs. Johnson, 35.

Pennsylvania is broke.

It can't pay its workers beyond next week and has stopped paying contractors for goods and services.

Hammered by a recession, the commonwealth finished the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a $467 million deficit and, legislators say, must raise an estimated $3 billion in new taxes to make ends meet this year.

So far, the General Assembly -- politically divided and faced with the painful choices of what services to cut and what taxes to raise -- has failed to come up with a budget.

The dispute is based in politics -- and involves a cast of characters and a plot with suspense and intrigue to rival any cheap thriller.

At its center is Robert P. Casey, the 59-year-old son of a coal miner from Scranton who ran for governor three times before his good looks, drive and sincerity propelled him to victory Nov. 3, 1986.

The cast includes an energetic House Democratic majority leader and a shrewd House minority leader who stands to gain along with his party if a tax-laden budget is identified with the Democrats and they lose big at the polls in 1992.

Amid all this, there are constant rumors that Governor Casey, who suffered a mild heart attack in 1987 and had quadruple bypass surgery, may resign before his term expires because of ill health.

"I'm going to be here for a while whether you like it or not," he told reporters last week.

Governor Casey, a Democrat, won re-election last November despite claims from Republicans that Pennsylvania was facing a recession and that he had failed to see it coming and to take corrective action.

Those charges have come back to haunt him now.

"He lied to us, he lied to the people of this commonwealth," said House Minority Leader Matthew J. Ryan, R-Delaware County.

Mr. Casey's popularity has plummeted as he has worked for passage of his $13.6 billion budget, proposed May 23, which calls for $2.6 billion in tax increases.

Increases proposed include raising the personal income tax by 17 percent, which would cost a taxpayer $35 for each $10,000 earned; increasing business taxes; and increasing the cigarette tax by 30 cents to 48 cents a pack.

Vincent P. Carocci, the governor's spokesman, says that it is fighting between Democratics and Republicans in the General Assembly that is holding up the budget and that it isn't the chief executive's fault if legislators cannot agree.

But that message doesn't seem to be getting out.

Throughout Pennsylvania, newspaper editorials have blasted Mr. Casey along with the General Assembly for the budget stalemate.

The most vocal advocates for an agreement are the 97,000 state workers who face the specter of life without paychecks later this month.

If lawmakers cannot pass a budget by Friday, about half the workers stand to go without pay. The other half would miss a paycheck July 26.

Each night, television news reports are beamed to local stations statewide showing hundreds of angry state employees shouting and cheering at rallies organized by union leaders in the Capitol's picturesque, marble-lined rotunda.

"Why can't the governor just sit down with them and have them work together? They'd get a lot more done," said Rose Cook, who has watched the demonstrations most nights on a large-screen television in the Locker Room Tavern in Carlisle, a town about 20 miles southwest of Harrisburg. "It just doesn't make any sense at all."

State workers have been rallying to slogans such as "We Will Remember in November," shouting them so loudly that their voices reverberate in the governor's staff offices.

They cheer union leaders' speeches, march the Capitol halls carrying protest signs and picket the building's entrances.

The tentacles of Pennsylvania's government run far and deep, so that the stakes are high.

Doctors are not getting paid for patients they treat on medical assistance, Pennsylvania's form of Medicaid; nursing homes are going without medical assistance payments; senior citizens are not getting property tax rebate checks of about $200 each; and funding for state highway projects is being held up.

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