Pa. Senate leader balks at using gaming and booze revenue to close state budget gap

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HARRISBURG – House Speaker Mike Turzai’s office boasted that he would lead an effort to “free the wine,” and some of his GOP colleagues continue to look at expanding gambling as a way to fill a looming budget shortfall.

But in the upper chamber, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) argued that legislators should not be relying on “addictive products” to pay the state’s bills.

With 2½ months to go before the end of the fiscal year, Pennsylvania legislators returned to the Capitol on Tuesday touting ideas about how to raise the money, but not on how to arrive at a consensus.

A House committee approved two Turzai bills, one that would allow all grocery stores to obtain permits to sell wine and could bring in $119 million, and another to sell the state’s wholesale alcohol business.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, opposes the bills, and they appear likely to run into trouble even if they reach the Republican-controlled Senate.

In an interview, Corman noted that the state in recent years had made significant changes to alcohol policy, such as allowing wine to be sold in certain grocery stores.

“I can’t imagine we’re going to do any more liquor expansion,” Corman said. “Maybe something around the edges, but certainly nothing overly significant.”

House Republican leaders have pointed to the expansion of gambling and additional loosening of state control of alcohol sales as ways to fill a significant part of the budget gap.

But Corman said he was becoming concerned that the state in recent years has continued trying to balance its budget on addiction.

“We shouldn’t drive gaming, liquor, and tobacco sales, which are very addictive products, based on budgetary needs,” he said. “We should drive them based on public policy that surrounds each one of them individually.”

The Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would allow airports to offer gambling.

Committee Chairman Mario Scavello (R., Monroe) said he expects that bill to be amended to include a proposal to raise gaming money that had been factored into the current year’s budget. He said it also would address a court decision that has threatened payments from casinos to their local communities.

Corman said the Senate may vote out a bill next week to authorize internet gambling and address the local-share decision.

In addition to questions of new revenue, legislators and the governor will need to address differences in spending proposals.

Earlier this month, House Republicans approved a $31.5 billion budget, which would spend about $800 million less than the plan Wolf proposed in February. The House GOP budget would trim spending throughout government, including in human services and prisons.

The state budget is typically the subject of intense negotiations ahead of the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

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