Harrisburg borrows a page from Washington - for the worse

Posted: July 14, 2014

Harrisburg is finally getting ambitious. Legislators took a look at Washington and realized they could do better.

And by better, I mean so much worse.

Summer is usually sleepy in our state capital, but this season fireworks keep igniting, though not in a good way. Gov. Corbett approved the state budget but cut a fifth of the legislature's allowance because it wouldn't give him pension reform. Corbett's critics immediately assailed the move as "about politics and not the hard work of governing."

And by critics, I mean fellow Republicans. The GOP has long been perceived as the unified party. Not so in Harrisburg, which has specialized in internecine warfare, even as the GOP controls everything.

"Pennsylvania's legislature is a full-time legislature," Corbett said, clearly forgetting where he was. Full-time pay, yes. Work? Not so much. "The General Assembly left Harrisburg earlier this month with unfinished business. They need to come back and enact pension reform."

Mind you, the Senate left one day before the governor said this.

The good news: The governor succeeded in getting Republican legislators to uniformly agree on one issue, along with Democrats: Their ardent dislike of Corbett, whom they regard as Dead Man Walking.

"We are disappointed that the Governor has not, to date, been able to work effectively with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to address important fiscal issues impacting our state," the Republican Senate leadership responded after the $72 million spanking. "However, we will not close our eyes to the needs of Pennsylvania residents."

Sly, huh? That's a pointed reference to Corbett's preposterous advice - "you just have to close your eyes" - about a proposed bill requiring women to have fetal ultrasounds before abortions.

If only we could close our eyes, and make the mess go away.

Earlier this month, though it feels like several years ago, the august 203 members of the House approved a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help fund Philadelphia schools before heading home to do whatever it is they do when they're not squabbling in Harrisburg. (Which sounds like the title of the worst sitcom ever.)

It was at that moment that Corbett declared - please do not read this while drinking a hot beverage - "we have worked for over a year, above the partisan politics, to put the students of Philadelphia first."

The Senate, the alleged adults in the legislature, had other plans and started doodling all over the puffs-for-pupils bill though the House had adjourned.

"As protector of the general fund, I have great concerns about what this means for the state," said the appropriations chair, Republican Sen. Jake Corman, a protector whose reelection campaign received $12,000 this year from tobacco companies. The tobacco lobby spent $6 million in Harrisburg in 2013, and already $1.7 million this year, possibly all on steak dinners in the last few weeks to move the Senate to mark up the tax bill, projected to generate $45 million for the coming school year.

It was around this time that Mayor Nutter aptly surmised, "We are caught in a vortex of political hell with no way out," a phrase ideally suited for T-shirts.

The Senate voted to sunset the tax bill after five years, which means the "full-time" House has to return next month to approve this version. I'm guessing legislators will be more motivated to get the required two-thirds votes to override Corbett's veto of their funds than to put the students of Philadelphia first.

"I'm not surprised by anything about how the cigarette tax has rolled out," said Philadelphia Democrat Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a mayoral hopeful, who introduced the bill two years ago and voted for this version, sunset and all. (Ironically, if Williams is elected, and given that modern mayors win two terms despite firebombing a city block or an FBI bug in their office, the funding might sunset on him.)

"This is a Band-Aid to get us through five years," Williams said. "Whoever is mayor, we shouldn't be planning on having a cigarette tax to fund the schools of Philadelphia."

In two decades in Harrisburg, Williams said, "I've never seen a House, a Senate, and governor that are all acting separately though controlled by one party. We're not talking to each other. We're talking at each other."

In other news, the School District laid off 342 employees and will have to shed considerably more if there isn't a cigarette tax by Aug. 15. Lobbyists spent $518 million in Harrisburg last year, an almost 19 percent increase over 2013, so Pennsylvania has at least one growth industry.

On the plus side, thanks to Mayor Nutter, the state has a potential new slogan: "A vortex of political hell with no way out." The "above partisan politics" business is definitely not working.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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