John Baer: Despite lacking clout, Philly will still be felt in Harrisburg

Posted: November 22, 2010

THE DRAMATIC DECLINE in Philadelphia's clout - the end of the Specter/Rendell era, statewide Republican rule, a power shift in Harrisburg, the loss of Dwight Evans as appropriations boss, a dire fiscal outlook - strikes fear into many city advocates.

I'm not here to tell you this fear is misplaced. Tougher times are ahead.

But, for several reasons, it's overblown.

First, let's look at the carnage.

Philadelphians Arlen Specter and Ed Rendell, whatever you think of them, were tireless, often successful activists on behalf of city and regional needs.

Both leave office soon, after long careers.

Republican Gov.-elect Tom Corbett and top leaders of the incoming GOP Legislature are from western Pennsylvania.

Corbett's from Pittsburgh. Senate President Joe Scarnati's district covers parts of eight western counties (some without cell-phone service). GOP House Speaker-elect Sam Smith is from Punxsutawney. House Majority Leader-elect Mike Turzai is from Pittsburgh.

Same with new Democratic leaders: Rep. Frank Dermody, House Minority Leader-elect; and Sen. Jay Costa, Senate Minority Leader-elect, both from Pittsburgh.

And with Republicans running both chambers starting in January, Philly faces another fact: There are no Philadelphians in the GOP Senate caucus and just 1 1/2 Philly Republicans in the House.

The one is Rep. John Taylor, a 26-year veteran.

The "half" is 32-year veteran Rep. Denny O'Brien, who became speaker of a narrowly Democratic House in 2007 after a deal to prevent fellow Republican (and now departing) John Perzel from grabbing the post. O'Brien hasn't been a GOP favorite since, and often votes with Democrats.

The only Philadelphian with a title even implying power is Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes, 24-year veteran of House and Senate, just elected minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But he's in the minority in a chamber where Democrats are commonly referred to as "the ladies' auxiliary."

On paper, this seems bleak if you're Mayor Nutter or anyone in Philly reliant on state funding, say for schools, hospitals, social services or SEPTA.

Rep. Taylor doesn't gloss the picture.

"We face an ultramarathon of pain," he tells me. "There'll be massive cuts in the first budget under a new Legislature that's probably 10 percent to 15 percent more conservative than the one expiring."

But he says no one is aiming at Philly; the state faces a $4 billion to $5 billion deficit, and pain will be statewide.

Sen. Hughes says the same: "No matter what region you're from, it's a bad situation. We're all in this together."

So no money means that even if 30-year veteran Evans retained his appropriations gig (Dems chose Pittsburgh's Joe Markosek; Evans' decades of power produced too many enemies), it wouldn't make much difference.

Evans agrees: "It just means those of us in the Philadelphia delegation have to be more aggressive."

Still, a couple of things might make a difference, or at least prevent annihilation.

Senate GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi and House GOP Appropriations chairman Bill Adolph represent suburban Philly districts.

Says Taylor: "They know the importance of Philadelphia to the region and to their constituents, who come here for education, health care and more."

Democratic analyst Larry Ceisler adds: "What happens in Philly affects their districts, so I don't think there's any reason for hysteria."

Also, Pileggi is a former mayor of Chester, a city that's known distress, and he has a good relationship with Nutter.

No question economic indicators and Corbett's no-tax pledge mean deep cuts in agencies and programs: education, welfare, museums and the arts - and that's just for starters.

After a budget or two, we'll see if deep cuts can be done without sacrificing public safety or further damaging the vulnerable.

Just remember, modern politics is volatile, voter patience nonexistent. There are political risks to overplaying power to favor or punish one region.

Philly's loss of clout is real. But it doesn't mean the city will be reeling.

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