Pennsylvania stands alone on yet another issue

Posted: October 24, 2013

Another day, another map in which Pennsylvania sits within the Northeast as an emphatic rectangle of red surrounded by a sea of regional blue.

The issue is same-sex marriage, but it hardly matters, nor does the hue, olive, brown, whatever. In the Northeast, Pennsylvania is the state of a different color, consistently and almost exclusively apart on vital issues: gay rights, access to reproductive health, Medicaid expansion, voter ID. The message tends to be anywhere but here.

Looking at those maps, I am reminded of that great Sesame Street ditty: "One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong."

That's Pennsylvania. It should be our state song. Seriously, because most people can't name our state song. Which is a problem because it's "Pennsylvania."

Time and again, the whole of Pennsylvania - as opposed to the Philadelphia region - stands alone in the Northeast, and by alone I mean looking more like Arkansas by the day.

"Our gap in the map," Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick called it. He was not alone in referring to the state as "an outlier" in the Northeast. The reasons pollsters give for the difference remain fixed: Pennsylvania has a lot of residents who are rural, older, religious, and, because of gerrymandering and who tends to show up at the polls, a legislature even more conservative than polls suggest.

"Our House in some ways is a mirror image of the U.S. House," said Franklin and Marshall's Terry Madonna, "except our majority leader [Rep. Mike Turzai] is more conservative than Speaker John Boehner." So there's another distinction.

While New Jersey is in a gay-wedding state of mind, Pennsylvania isn't close. "The process is going to be slow and gradual," Madonna said. "Possibly we will have gay marriage within 10 years." Less than two miles but possibly a decade separate Philadelphia from New Jersey.

"People need to understand that we're the only state in the Northeast where you can fire someone for being gay," said Ted Martin of Equality Pennsylvania, which champions gay rights. He also noted that "we have no specific hate-crimes protection for the LGBT community. When you look at the map, Pennsylvania stands out in such a remarkably odd way."

Which should be our new state motto. Most people can't name that, either. It's "Virtue, liberty and independence."

We appear to be doing better on the third part than the first.

In 2012, Pennsylvania was dead last in enrolling children, families, and pregnant women in Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The state dropped more than 9 percent of all participants from the rolls, while most states, like New Jersey, added people.

Pennsylvania is one of the rare Northeastern states, along with Maine, that has to date refused to expand health coverage.

"Culturally, we have a lot in common with Ohio and West Virginia," Madonna told me. But on Monday, Ohio accepted Medicaid expansion, becoming the 25th state to do so, and West Virginia is leaning toward expansion. Meanwhile, Gov. Corbett looks to Arkansas for inspiration.

We're behind, alone, different, and rarely in a good way. If the large community of voters in our region, Pittsburgh and other cities don't vote in numbers and make ourselves heard, Pennsylvania will continue to be the state that stands out in a remarkably odd way.

A correction: Sunday's column on Philadelphia and Pennsylvania ethics and gift laws should have made clear that most city employees, about 21,000, are under the mayor's authority and are prohibited from accepting gifts and cash. City Council sets the gift law that applies to other city workers. The Board of Ethics interprets that law, but only City Council can make it stricter.

215-854-2586 @kheller

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