Two Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday began fast-tracking legislation that would enable a takeover of capital city Harrisburg and authorize Gov. Tom Corbett to declare a state of emergency.
By an overwhelming 190-to-7 vote, the House passed a bill allowing the state to take over small to medium-sized cities that reject a financial recovery plan proposed under the Act 47 program for distressed communities.
The House was debating further amendments late Tuesday afternoon.
The moves followed an agreement by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Susquehanna Valley, and Rep. Glen Grell, R-Hampden Township, to add amendments to the bill, which Piccola filed last June but was tabled near the end of the session.
The amendments would empower Corbett to petition the Commonwealth Court to appoint a receiver for Harrisburg, should its City Council not adopt a recovery plan within 30 days of his declaration.
Under the Piccola-Grell agreements, Corbett could immediately direct the Department of Community and Economic Development to devise a contingency plan to provide for vital services such as police, fire and trash pickup in Harrisburg.
Their amendment would also include an advisory panel that would report to the receiver as the plan is implemented.
The bill would prohibit a commuter tax, which Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson and some City Council members have favored.
The move comes just as the General Assembly reconvened for a fall session and two weeks after the City Council rejected, for the third time — all by 4-to-3 votes — a financial recovery plan under the Act 47 program, in which Harrisburg enrolled last December.
A required final House vote on Grell's amendment could come Wednesday before the bill returns to the Senate for concurrence, according to a Grell spokesman. If there is no Senate vote this week, it could act the week of Oct. 17, when it reconvenes.
Harrisburg, which faces about $310 million of debt related to a costly incinerator retrofit project, has rejected such a plan three times.
Bonds outstanding on the incinerator total roughly $220 million.
Harrisburg owes a remaining balance to Dauphin County, bond insurer Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp., and the facility's operator, the Harrisburg Authority.
All three parties have lawsuits pending against the city.
"The council has refused, time and again, to do anything to lead Harrisburg out of the financial chaos it finds itself in," Piccola said. "The ramification is simple: state intervention."
Thompson, in a statement Tuesday afternoon that followed a Grell-Piccola press conference, said she would call for another meeting with all council members. She scheduled her own press conference for early Tuesday evening.
She has spent the past two weeks holding town meetings in which she has told Harrisburg citizens to brace for a takeover by the state.
"Now we're going to get approximately the same plan, but without the guaranteed funding and with little or no control over its implementation," Thompson said.
The city nearly ran out of money two weeks ago, before it reached an agreement with the Harrisburg Parking Authority on a 10-year lease agreement that provided the capital city with $7.4 million of up-front revenue.
The move enabled Harrisburg to make two general obligation bond payments due in September totaling $3.3 million and meet expenses, including payroll, for the end of the year.
"We have to move beyond the paradigm of the past now, and prepare for the eventuality that the future, the takeover, has arrived," Thompson said. "I am willing to give the council one more opportunity to stay in the process."