Conservative Democrats' voices heard
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HARRISBURG -- As powerful politicians clash over Pennsylvania's lengthening state budget impasse, members of a small band of largely backbench conservative Democrats are exercising a little muscle of their own.
The so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House have openly defied a call by Gov. Ed Rendell and leaders of the House Democratic majority to support an increase in the personal income tax. And they did so in a building in which rank-and-file legislators generally fear the punishment that may result from thumbing their noses at their caucus leaders.
Many of the 25 or so Blue Dogs are from Western Pennsylvania, where many towns are still struggling to overcome the loss of heavy industry. Incomes in the region tend to be lower than the state average and bankruptcy rates higher.
"Our voice has been heard, and that's what we tried to accomplish," said Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria.
Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, said the group's members had misgivings about defying caucus leaders. But they felt that an income tax increase during such economic difficulty would be so unpopular in their districts that they could not afford to be good soldiers and support it -- or even quietly oppose it, he said.
"I don't know how you justify that to the public, and that's where we said, 'We're going to make a stand here,' " Mr. Kotik said. "I know the leadership doesn't like it, but my original obligation is to the district. If I don't represent them, then I'm gone."
Pennsylvania's state government is about two weeks into the new fiscal year without the legal authority to pay most of its bills, thanks to a partisan stalemate over how to resolve a multibillion-dollar deficit.
As it stands, Democratic leaders in the 203-member House have stalled in their efforts to gather enough votes -- Democratic or Republican -- to push through Mr. Rendell's proposal for a $28.8 billion budget.
That plan includes a three-year, 16 percent income tax increase while raising spending by more than 3 percent above what was to be spent in the state's just-ended fiscal year. Republican alternatives would cut spending by 2 percent and avoid an income tax hike.
Republicans, who control the Senate, are generally hewing to the party line and have reveled in the inability of House Democratic leaders to keep their troops in line.
Asked about the impact of the Blue Dogs, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, said a majority of House Democrats are willing to vote for Mr. Rendell's plan. House Republicans, he said, should supply the rest of the necessary votes to pass it -- a measure of bipartisan protection from a voter backlash that top legislators usually demand when taking a risky vote.
The House Democrats' Blue Dogs, a term originally used in Congress, began meeting loosely a little over a year ago, Mr. Kotik said. At the time, a liberal colleague, then-Rep. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, was pressing legislation that would have required hospitals to provide sexual assault victims with emergency contraception.
Catholic hospitals were worried about being forced to offer treatment that conflicts with their religious principles, and House Democrats with large Catholic constituencies began meeting about the issue. They rattled enough chains that caucus leaders set the issue aside, Mr. Kotik said.
The group has been meeting more regularly as the state's financial situation deteriorated rapidly this year. Some members say they have felt more pressure to be frugal ever since the unpopular 2005 government pay raise. Others blame the economy for their constituents' resistance to an income tax increase.
But the Blue Dogs do not necessarily oppose any kind of tax increase or subscribe to the deeper spending cuts championed by Republicans. Some worry about devastating cuts to hospitals and social and agricultural services that might result from a budget without a tax increase.
If a general tax increase is necessary to ensure that those services survive, some say they would accept a modest sales tax hike to support a spending plan that falls somewhere between Mr. Rendell's and the GOP's.
"I have a lot of older people, I have a lot people who depend on services and they expect cuts," said Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence. "But there's a difference between a cut and being wiped out."
A sales tax increase, some members say, would fall more evenly across the population than an income tax increase and is not imposed on some basic necessities, such as food and clothes.
Mr. Kotik, whose Capitol office has served as a meeting place for the group, said he believes the Blue Dogs' perceived successes will ensure their continued cohesion.
"When one or two guys speak up, they're generally dismissed," he said. "When upwards of 15 or 20 guys make a statement, then [caucus leaders] have to sit up and take notice. And that's what we did."
First Published July 13, 2009 12:00 am