Things are worse in Pennsylvania

Bruce L. Bortz

July 01, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

YOU have a friend in Pennsylvania." It's the tourist marketing slogan of the commonwealth to the north. But if you look closely, particularly at the 253 members of the Keystone State's legislature, "You have trouble in Pennsylvania" is more accurate. From a lot of different angles, Maryland is the friendlier.

Maryland's economy is hardly the picture of robust health, but the Free State is slowly emerging from recession. Pennsylvania, for so long a manufacturing powerhouse, continues in depression. And its politicians don't know what to do about it.

One incumbent, a 75-year-old dentist in south-central Pennsylvania, throws up his hands in despair. Pennsylvania simply doesn't offer much to attract new industry, he says. His decade-long efforts to bring an electricity generating plant to his district have been thwarted by big utilities and small citizen groups concerned over the plant's potential damage to the environment.

Other legislators want to create jobs by rebuilding the infrastructure. Get the federal government to finance high-speed trains, some say. Develop some of the unused campgrounds into summer attractions for "snow birds" -- those people who winter in the South and spend summers in places like Pennsylvania. Build more roads, say others. But relief is not around the corner.

Gov. Bob Casey, now in his second term, is a Democratic Party outcast because of his opposition to abortion. (He was not allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention and did not endorse Bill Clinton.) Mr. Casey has just undergone a risky heart-liver transplant, making his health as big a question mark as his political future.

Beyond Mr. Casey, there is considerable legislative instability. In the 45-member Senate, Democrats have a majority of one. (Republicans controlled the body after last fall's election, but one senator switched parties.) So for the first time in more than a decade, the House, Senate and governor's office are controlled by Democrats. But in the House, Democrats cling to a 105-98 majority. (With all House members up for re-election every two years, that could change in 1994.)

The result is that it takes forever to get things done in the legislature -- if they ever get done.

Political reform seems dead, too. Pennsylvania legislators are paid about $50,000 a year (roughly twice the salary of Maryland's "part-time" lawmakers). Their salaries are augmented if they're in power positions, and their office expenses and staff are paid for. Significantly, they're also provided $650 a month to lease a car.

When they got wind of this perk, Pennsylvanians got upset. Legislators were driving around in some very fancy vehicles. The former House speaker suggested that the commonwealth buy and maintain a fleet of less-expensive cars for its legislators. It was a sensible idea -- so sensible that the speaker's colleagues ousted him.

Then there's Pennsylvania's "walking-around money." Since 1988, legislators have been given $200 million to dole out pretty much as they please. Many of these grants happen to be made around election time. There's little discussion in Harrisburg of wiping out the system, as Maryland did several years ago.

If Pennsylvania's legislators were ever enticed as a group to Maryland and saw the Free State's political system and economy up close, they'd probably see a prettier picture. They might head north repeating Maryland's tourism slogan: "More than you can imagine."

Bruce L. Bortz writes biweekly on Maryland politics. His "Guidebook to Pennsylvania Legislators 1993-94" will be published next month.

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