A new state budget was long overdue when Gov. Ed Rendell and legislative leaders announced Friday evening that they'd crafted a tentative budget of $27.9 billion. But it's too early for a celebration.
That's because a lot of the details still are being worked out, and rank-and-file lawmakers are as impatient for more information as we are. No votes are expected until next week at the earliest.
The budget deal satisfied legislators' demand that the state -- like its citizens -- spend less money this fiscal year than the $28.2 billion spent in 2008-09, but the nature of compromise is that nobody gets everything they want. Or everybody gets something they don't want.
The two most controversial elements on the revenue side are legalizing table games at the state's casinos and imposing new taxes on arts, cultural and charitable organizations.
The tentative budget relies on $200 million from new licenses that would allow casinos to operate table games along with slot machines. Still unresolved is what tax rate casinos would pay on bets wagered on blackjack, poker, roulette, craps and other games; the rate is 55 percent on slots but it would be lower for table games.
Separate legislation must be passed to expand gambling, and that probably needs to happen before a budget that relies on it for revenue can be adopted. That means the Legislature will be enacting widespread change in the state's gambling industry without allowing for widespread public comment.
Also problematic are plans to start imposing the state sales tax on tickets to the ballet, opera, rock concerts, live theater, museums and zoos, as well as putting a new tax on so-called "small games of chance" such as raffles operated as fund-raisers for charity. How can lawmakers tax cultural and charitable ventures at the same time that they're refusing to tax cigars, smokeless tobacco and natural gas extracted from Marcellus shale deposits?
From what we do know, the proposed deal is not all bad. It doesn't raise the sales or income tax rates, but it does bump up the cigarette tax and taps both the $750 million Rainy Day Fund and a $700 million surplus in an account that subsidized medical malpractice insurance for physicians. It keeps a commitment to Pennsylvania schoolchildren by increasing the amount of money for school districts, taking some pressure off local property taxpayers.
But there's still too much we don't know.