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John Baer: Can't the state budget wait? We're on vacation, people

ENJOY YOUR Memorial Day? Back at work today? Well, your state Legislature, the largest, most expensive full-time legislature in the nation, is still on its two-week Memorial Day break.

ENJOY YOUR Memorial Day?

Back at work today?

Well, your state Legislature, the largest, most expensive full-time legislature in the nation, is still on its two-week Memorial Day break.

Ah, the privileges of power.

This, despite an end-of-June deadline to pass a new budget on time for a change (before taking summer break), and without furloughing a third of state workers as was done last year.

This, despite the irresistible force that is Ed Rendell and the immovable object that's the Republican Senate remaining incapable of agreeing on anything - leasing the turnpike or confirming state judges among only recent examples.

But, then, the budget's late every year this Guv and the GOP do battle, and there's scant evidence that the string ends this year.

So, proving Einstein right (when he said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results), here we go again.

As in the past, there are differences over the amount of investment in health care, energy, transportation, infrastructure and more.

Rendell, arguing that the state's low debt-ceiling and good credit rating can be maintained even with an aggressive agenda, wants to borrow until well after the cows come home.

This stems from his firm belief that government exists to improve lives.

He's especially insistent in pushing for health-care coverage for all or a big chunk of the state's estimated 767,000 uninsured.

Republican Senate leaders, wedded to principles of "fiscal responsibility," oppose any new programs and seem reluctant to significantly expand the state's credit line.

This stems from a firm belief that government exists to deliver the mail and protect our borders.

They dub the Guv's health initiative just too long-term costly.

So it's Reckless Rendell vs. Do-little Lawmakers.

Among items on the table: a $2.3 billion economic-stimulus plan;

$2 billion for bridge repair; $750 million for sewer and water projects;

$500 million more for basic education; 100 new cops for Philadelphia; a 10-cent-per-pack cigarette-tax increase; taxing cigars and smokeless tobacco; and huge investments in biomedical research and alternative-fuels development.

Victory for the Guv lies in getting some of what he wants; victory for the GOP lies in stopping most of what he wants.

Victory for the people of Pennsylvania? Mostly just lies.

(And remember, H.L. Mencken said: "Cynics are right nine times out of 10.")

This year's theater plays out against two distracting backdrops: a rotten economy sucking life out of an expected surplus, and an ongoing criminal probe into $3.6 million of legislative bonuses to employees and at least the prospect of indictments during budget negotiations.

So, falling revenues and frog-walks with handcuffs could make things tougher.

It's also an election year for half the 50-member Senate and the entire 203-member House, which means either quick resolution or protracted grandstanding.

The greatest hope I've found rests with key player Sen. Gib Armstrong, R-Lancaster, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

He's Dr. No to Gov. Spendell.

But Armstrong tells me that borrowing $1 billion for bridge and road repair "is a little more attractive now" that money is cheap and costs of materials to fix infrastructure are constantly rising.

When I mention that his attitude surprises me, he says: "We have infrastructure problems . . . it's something I personally won't rule out."

So there's some hope for progressive action in a process known for mostly maintenance.

Just don't go thinking there's a brand new day with a better focus on real results.

Among items on the House agenda when it returns next week are resolutions to keep Mexican trucks out of America and to honor the NRA for efforts in gun safety.

And so it goes. *

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