HARRISBURG — Top GOP lawmakers and fellow Republican Gov. Tom Corbett continued to grapple behind closed doors with stubborn disagreements on his major priorities Tuesday as school employees took center stage, swarming the Capitol to criticize a political regime that they say has been callous toward public schoolchildren.
The activity comes in the final days of the state’s fiscal year, as lawmakers scramble to wrap up work before leaving Monday for their traditional two-month summer break from Harrisburg.
Hundreds of school employees, children and parents canvassed lawmakers before holding a boisterous rally on the Capitol steps that labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers joined. Many of those rallying wore signs that said “missing” above a photograph of a laid-off school employee, including some of the 3,800 who are being laid off in Philadelphia, the state’s largest school district.
“The crisis was created for us by these so-called leaders who don’t give us the resources we need,” laid-off high school English teacher Anissa Weinraub told the crowd.
At Northeast High School in Philadelphia, all the assistant principals, nurses, counselors and secretaries are being laid off, in addition to five social studies teachers, a step that history and government teacher Marcella Weisberg said she sees as part of a wider attack on public schools that is unfairly putting blame on teachers and students.
In a nod to the $360 million business tax cut that Corbett and Republican lawmakers are trying to preserve in the spending plan they are negotiating privately, Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia led the crowd in a chant of, “Put the children first, put the corporations last.”
Inside the Capitol, Corbett has kept a low profile this week, meeting privately with Republican lawmakers but making little public comment and no public appearances. Republican lawmakers are dealing with entrenched and possibly fatal disagreements over Corbett’s top priorities of allowing private retailers to sell wine and liquor, overhauling the state’s biggest public employee pension plans and boosting funding for highways, bridges and mass transit agencies.
Top Republican senators suggested that the state will not respond with anywhere near the $120 million that the Philadelphia School District, which has been under state oversight for a decade, is seeking as part of a plan to reverse the layoffs. Many lawmakers would like more money for their school districts, too, they said.
“So that’s really the challenge in front of us,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said. “How do we be fair to everyone?”
Still, Senate Republicans are willing to advance legislation being sought by Philadelphia that would increase the collection of delinquent property tax payments and allow Philadelphia City Council to impose a city cigarette tax, Pileggi said. Those moves would help create more money for public schools.
He also said there is enough time in the next six days to come to an agreement on all three of Corbett’s top priorities, as well as a $28 billion-plus spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Senate Republicans have been unwilling to support legislation to end the state’s control of retail and wholesale control of wine and liquor sales in Pennsylvania, as House Republicans and Corbett have sought.
In turn, House Republicans have protested the size of a $2.5 billion-a-year transportation funding bill passed by the Senate that would raise gas taxes, motorist fees and fines for driving violations, although House Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Hess said he thinks the odds are better than even that a transportation funding bill will make it into law in the coming days.
Democratic lawmakers, in the minority in both chambers, support the Senate’s transportation bill and oppose Republican efforts to shut down the state’s wine and liquor business. House and Senate Republicans were narrowing their differences over bills to overhaul the state’s big public employee pension systems, which were being opposed by Democrats. But conflicting analyses on the cost of those plans could bog down efforts to pass them in the coming days.