Analysts decry legislative standstill

By Debra Erdley

On the down side, it will cost more to rent a car in Allegheny County this year, as it will to drink.

But nursing mothers across Pennsylvania will be able feed infants without fear.

And Wilkes-Barre — maybe even Altoona — could become the new Hollywood if Pittsburgh and Philadelphia fall short with film companies.

Such were the fruits of the state Legislature’s 2007 session, where lawmakers approved stopgap funding for mass transit, the defense of motherhood and a film tax credit to encourage the state’s fledgling movie industry.

The year that began with a bang as 55 new lawmakers rode to office on a reform wave ended with a whimper as Attorney General Tom Corbett’s investigation of legislative staff bonuses ramped up. A state grand jury is investigating whether bonuses paid to Republican and Democratic staffers in the House and Senate were connected to work on campaigns.

“It was disappointing,” political scientist Thomas Baldino said about the Legislature’s performance.

Baldino, a Wilkes University professor who has studied the Legislature, said House rule changes — such as one that ended legislative business at 11 p.m. — were a start toward reforming the way business is done at the Capitol. But neither chamber addressed issues such as cutting the size of the Legislature, reforming the property tax system or campaign financing.

Even strengthening the state’s Right to Know Law, considered one of the weaker open records laws in the nation, will have to wait.

“If nothing else, I was amazed that the Legislature could not bring itself to pass the open records legislation,” Baldino said. “Given all the backlash from the (failed 2005 legislative) pay raise and the recent scandals about the excessive payments to staff members — all of these things that appeared to be, at minimum, impolitic — one would think the Legislature would have rushed to pass rather straightforward open records legislation.”

Although the House passed a Senate open records bill on its last day in session, Senate leaders said extensive House amendments precluded final action before 2008.

Like Baldino, Nathan Benefield, policy director of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, bemoaned lawmakers’ failure to pass an open records act. But Benefield saw an upside in the stalemate.

“A lot of things they are trying to do are things (the Commonwealth Foundation) would rather not see done, things like the health and energy proposals the governor is planning, and a smoking ban,” he said.

Part of the gridlock might be an offshoot of change.

Baldino noted that 20 percent of the state’s 253 lawmakers were first-time lawmakers in 2007. At least three senior legislative leaders — two Senate Republicans and one House Democrat — lost their seats in 2006. In the House, members struggled to adapt after Democrats snagged a narrow majority for the first time in 12 years.

Benefield said the listless legislative session left incumbents with little to brag about.

“They may have to campaign on what they blocked the other side from doing,” he said.

Chuck Moran of the Pennsylvania Medical Society said that approach won’t fly with physicians. They’re upset about the Legislature’s failure to reauthorize a program that discounts pricey malpractice insurance.

The state requires doctors to carry $1 million in malpractice insurance. Doctors must pay for the first $500,000, but for five years the Legislature has approved funding for the entire cost of the second $500,000 for physicians in high-risk specialties such as neurosurgery and obstetrics, and 50 percent of the cost of the second $500,000 for all other physicians.

Even bills that passed, such as Act 44 to pay for highways, bridges and mass transit, upset some sectors.

The bill authorized Allegheny County Council to tax auto rentals and alcoholic drinks to subsidize Port Authority. It approved tolling Interstate 80 to fill gaps in the state’s highway budget, an option that federal officials have yet to approve.

“If I were grading them, I’d have to give them a C-minus — and that’s being generous,” Baldino said.
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