2009-09-24 / Local & State

Budget Mess Likely To Resurface In Pa.'s '10 Races


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Campaign considerations are never far from the minds of Pennsylvania's state lawmakers, and these days they have a new worry - the state budget standoff that has sunk their poll numbers.

Next year, when all 203 House seats and half the 50-member Senate will be up for election, voters will issue their verdict on the process that has shown in vivid relief just how hard it can be for a divided government to find common ground.

The backlash could encourage more challengers and prompt a slew of retirements, as occurred following widespread public disgust over passage of the 2005 pay raise law. Some voters will be eager to punish legislators who voted for higher taxes, or even for simply floating them. Some will consider program cuts draconian, while others will think they did not go far enough.

Gov. Ed Rendell and senior lawmakers did finally announce a breakthrough deal late Friday, but their constituents will be not be asking them to repeat the drawn-out process next year.

"They understand that the founding fathers could go to Philadelphia in the middle of summer and write a document that endured for over two centuries, and that the state Legislature should be able to go to their air-conditioned offices and get a budget done - and the same with the governor,'' veteran Republican political consultant John Brabender said.

Next year's elections have loomed over the negotiations, because the atmosphere for raising new taxes will be even more hostile, but the downward economic pressure that devastated revenues and produced the current deficit are unlikely to suddenly disappear.

"If we have this situation next year, it would be harmful to the Democrats, the Democratic governor and the Democratic majority in the House, and that's why it's important to get it right now for Pennsylvanians, and get it right for the party,'' said Rep. Mike Gerber, D-Montgomery, who heads up his caucus' campaign efforts.

Many Republicans are licking their chops over the tax issue, and the House Republicans were so adamantly opposed to the deal's new taxes and the overall size of the budget that their leadership withdrew from the endgame negotiations.

House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said he felt he could not, in good faith, be a party to discussions of tax increases that his members strictly oppose.

"If you're in the room and you're debating what taxes to raise and what taxes not to raise, and then you turn around and say, 'I'm not voting for that,' that's kind of negotiating in bad faith, and I'm not going to do that,'' he said.

"When you don't come to the table and you don't represent your concerns, they're underrepresented,'' said Majority Leader Todd Eachus, DLuzerne. "For me, on a personal level, it's the wrong decision.''

Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said campaign researchers will be looking back much farther than just this year when it comes to tax votes.

"We can pick out somebody who's adamantly opposed to taxes this year that voted for a bunch of taxes years ago,'' he said.

Democrats will be trying to sell voters on their efforts to preserve funding for human services, education, environmental initiatives, economic development and other programs, Gerber said.

"There are Pennsylvanians whose jobs and lives are on the line, and our actions will have a very serious impact on those Pennsylvanians,'' he said.

Republicans can take encouragement by the likelihood that Pennsylvania's electorate will probably look a lot different in November 2010 than the one that handed President Barack Obama the state by a 10.4 percentage point margin last year.

Although it may be a good season to run against incumbents, the level of anti-Harrisburg sentiment is not like it was in 2006, and that incumbents have built-in protections.

They also have 13 months to try to change the subject.

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