Powerful legislators hail from Western Pa.

House, Senate leaders are Jefferson Co. natives

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HARRISBURG -- Punxsutawney Phil has never had it so good at the state Capitol.

The state House and Senate leaders for the 2011-12 legislative term both hail from groundhog territory -- rural Jefferson County in west-central Pennsylvania.

Rep. Sam Smith, the new House Speaker, is a lifelong resident of Punxsutawney in the southern part of the county, while Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati is from Brockway in the northern end. Both must still be officially elected to their posts during a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, but that is considered a formality.

So if Punxsutawney Phil ever wanted special attention from Harrisburg, now's the time to stick his head up.

"This will be the first time that the House Speaker will be from Jefferson County, so maybe we should make Groundhog Day an official state holiday," Smith aide Steve Miskin joked. "Or move the capital to Punxsutawney."

Mr. Smith's official online state biography says he's a longtime member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, adding "The famous Gobbler's Knob is in the heart of his district."

Mr. Smith, 55, has led House Republicans for the past four years, but his influence was limited because Democrats ran the House. But with GOP electoral success in November, Republicans will control both chambers for the Legislature's two-year session, which opens Tuesday.

That's also the day when Mr. Smith's friend and political ally, Mr. Scarnati, is to be formally chosen again for the top job in the Senate, president pro tem.

This is a big week for Mr. Scarnati, who turned 49 Sunday.

The western part of the state has had some strong legislators in the past, said Pittsburgh political observer William J. Green, such as Speakers K. Leroy Irvis of Pittsburgh and James Manderino of Westmoreland in the 1980s, and Govs. Dick Thornburgh in the 1980s and Tom Ridge in the '90s. But Mr. Green couldn't recall anything like the power combo from Western Pennsylvania that's now in place.

The new governor, Tom Corbett of Shaler, will take office Jan. 18. Other top House officials are also from the west: House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods and House Democratic leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont. And Senate Democrats will be led by Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills.

Mr. Smith has been in Harrisburg for quite a while, having been first elected in 1986. He took over the seat of his father, former Rep. Eugene "Snuffy" Smith. Mr. Scarnati wasn't elected to the Senate until 2000, and he said he owes his victory in large part to Mr. Smith.

Mr. Scarnati had spent 20 years running his family's steakhouse, the Rocky Grill in Brockway. Then in 2000 he decided to run as an independent in a three-way Senate race. The Republican candidate was disgraced Sen. William Slocum, who'd been convicted of illegal dumping but was still trying to be re-elected.

"Sam was the catalyst in me running for the Senate," Mr. Scarnati recalled last week. "He said, 'I think I know a way you can do this. Run as an independent, but you'll still have a lot of hurdles to go through.' "

After winning, he rejoined the GOP. "I was sworn in on my 39th birthday," Jan. 2, 2001, he said.

Even though they are in the same party, House and Senate Republicans have clashed in the past over legislation. But Mr. Scarnati didn't anticipate problems in working on legislative issues with Mr. Smith.

"We've been friends for 20 years. I was Jefferson County Republican chairman and was president of the Jefferson County Development Council, where Sam was on the board. But our friendship goes beyond politics. We trust and respect each other."

When Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll died in 2008, Mr. Scarnati, as Senate president, filled the lieutenant governor's job, but he was never really a part of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

"On a personal basis, Ed Rendell and I have always gotten along and had a great relationship," said Mr. Scarnati, a fiscal and social conservative who contrasted sharply with the liberal Democrat from Philadelphia.

"I respect him, but publicly, we've disagreed on policies and the direction of the state."

They clashed over Mr. Rendell's attempts to raise the personal income tax rate, which he managed to do in December 2003 but not in June 2009. They also disagreed over the size of the state budget.

"I've tried to articulate a message of less spending and low taxes," Mr. Scarnati said. "It was awkward, as lieutenant governor, disagreeing with the governor. He and I sparred over his tax proposals. [Senate Republicans] have been able to rein in a lot of his spending plans, but it's been challenging."

He admitted that erasing a budget deficit or $3 billion or more -- which is currently projected for the budget year that begins July 1 -- could be an even bigger challenge. Closing the deficit will be done mainly by cutting state spending rather than by raising taxes, which Mr. Corbett opposes.

"Pennsylvanians need to hear it straight: There is going to be pain with these cuts," Mr. Scarnati said. But he is hoping the fiscal pain will be "short-term, to get the state back on track. The pain must be felt equally and be balanced across all areas of the budget. It has to be fair and equitable. But it will be difficult."

He thinks a 2011-12 budget can completed by May 31, or a full month before the current fiscal year ends June 30. That would be a huge contrast to the past eight years, when new budgets weren't enacted until at least July because of disagreements between Mr. Rendell and legislators.

Mr. Miskin said legislators agree their "No. 1 priority is an on-time, no-tax-increase budget."

He didn't want to be pinned down to a specific date, but he said the lack of the annual battle between Republicans and Democrats over Mr. Rendell's plans for more borrowing and spending should make it easier to adopt a budget well ahead of June 30.

Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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