Harrisburg shifts to GOP control, changes priorities

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HARRISBURG -- The GOP capture on Tuesday of the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly points to both an ideological and geographic shift in the state's center of power, with Western Pennsylvanians re-emerging as an influential bloc.

The power trifecta scored election night by the Republicans puts Allegheny County natives in the governor's mansion and the House majority leader's post, with Western Pennsylvanians holding other leadership jobs including Senate president pro-tem.

"We're going to have a voice with leadership and with the executive branch," said Joseph DiSarro, a political scientist from Washington & Jefferson College.

Much of Mr. DiSarro's optimism is predicated on the idea that the state's west, once a center of organized labor and economic liberalism, has seen an ideological shift. The region, he said, has always been socially conservative but, with the decline of heavy industry and the emergence of new ones, the shift to a stronger free market economics has followed.

"I strongly feel we'll experience a change in political attitude here when it comes to economic growth and business," he said.

But, as shifts occur, changes take time.

If Western Pennsylvania enjoys a newfound proximity to power, some of those very power brokers cautioned against unrealistic expectations. The state is broke, the post-recession economy has cut into expected revenues and a host of transportation, pension and other woes await even a politically unified state government.

The most visible change, for the moment, is the cast of characters.

Gone are such leadership figures as former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and Majority Leader Todd A. Eachus, D-Luzerne. Both were turned out of office on election night.

Vincent Fumo, the powerful keeper of the purse strings in the state Senate, is history, consigned to prison on corruption charges.

With a change in parties and a shift in legislators, the leadership moves westward. Rep. Sam Smith, the Jefferson County Republican, is in line to become the next House speaker. Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, likely moves into the majority leader's spot.

On the Democratic side, state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said he plans to run for the job of Democratic leader now that Mr. Eachus is gone.

"It can't hurt that we have a governor and members of the Legislature in leadership positions that are well aware of the issues and problems we have in Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Dermody said on Wednesday.

Still, the Senate leader Joseph Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson County, cautioned that his party will need to focus on statewide matters and avoid internal squabbles over divisive, flashpoint social issues such as abortion rights.

"We better focus on the fiscal issues and get those resolved before we start looking at the social issues," he said.

On the House side, the new Republican leadership team held a news conference at the Capitol Wednesday to outline ideas for the 2011-12 legislative session, which opens in January. The mood reflected the upbeat feelings among Republicans nationwide.

Mr. Smith, of Punxsutawney, the current House Republican leader who is virtually certain to be elected as the new House speaker, said coming up with a "responsible" state budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, will be the top priority.

The current budget is $28 billion and the state will lose $2 billion in federal stimulus funds at the end of 2010 because the program is ending. But Mr. Smith declined to say what the bottom line of the next budget should be, saying that's premature. He said House leaders need to talk to Governor-elect Tom Corbett and to Senate Republicans before deciding what 2011-12 spending should be.

As for which expenditures might be cut, "Everything is on the table," said Mr. Turzai.

He did say that Republicans have three general priorities for 2011: "Get state spending under control, make Pennsylvania more competitive for business, and make the Legislature function in a more open, responsible and accountable manner."

Republicans said state government should provide only "core functions," such as education, law enforcement and transportation.

"We don't have the money for frills and extras," said Mr. Smith, while conceding that opinions can differ as to what is essential and what is a frill.

"The people have spoken," he added. "They want a leaner, meaner state government."

To achieve that, Republicans vowed to look at state agencies and "trim the fat," again without giving specifics.

Mr. Turzai called for "stopping reckless borrowing," such as, he claimed, has been done by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. He said he opposes many projects funded by $600 million in debt from the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program, such as buildings to honor Democratic politicians Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. John Murtha.

The Republican leaders said they know they will face daunting fiscal problems next year. Besides losing the stimulus money, the state must, in January, begin paying back $3 billion borrowed from Washington to pay unemployment compensation. Also, at least $3 billion in pension funding increases loom in the next year or two for retired state workers and school employees. And state tax revenues have been increasing only slightly, due to the ongoing recession.

Other new GOP leaders, to be formally chosen next week, also include: Rep. Stan Saylor of York as party whip (responsible for lining up votes); Rep. Dave Reed of Indiana as chairman of the House GOP Policy Committee; and Rep. Bill Adolph of Delaware County, House Appropriations chairman.

While not giving many specifics, GOP leaders did say this:

• Chances are virtually nil for enacting a "straight-up extraction tax" on natural gas pumped from Marcellus Shale, as House Democrats tried to do a month ago. For one thing, Mr. Corbett opposes such a tax. Mr. Smith talked about having the gas drilling companies, in some undefined way, help communities pay for repairing local road or environmental damage.

• Mr. Smith said he'd like to consider reducing the size of the 203-member House, saying a somewhat smaller body could be more efficient. That would require a constitutional change.

• Mr. Adolph said he'd like to see limits put on campaign spending and the length of House members' terms go to four years from the current two years, so a legislator doesn't have to spend too much time getting re-elected.

• Consider "selling off state assets." The only specific example came from Mr. Turzai, who'd like to privatize state liquor stores, as a way to generate at least $2 billion, to help ease state financial problems.

• Eliminate "waste and abuse" in the Department of Public Welfare, by following a recent audit by state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who said up to $1 billion could be saved by making sure only eligible recipients get the aid.

Issues facing the next legislative session include the perennials: passage of a budget, dealing with dwindling revenues, finding a way to fund education. There are also likely to be issues uniquely fitted to the agenda in the state's west, notably what, if anything, to do about vast resources of natural gas lying within the layer of rock known as the Marcellus Shale.

Mr. Corbett, a Shaler resident, flatly opposes any severance tax on drilling and has promised to reopen state lands for future drilling permits. Legislative observers acknowledge there will be a large temptation to push for such a levy, lest Pennsylvania be the only state in the union without such a tax.

Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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