IT'S INSTRUCTIVE of our state legislative process that capital buzz these days swarms around a war of whips and, um, a panda bear.

Let me explain.

Former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, facing Vince Fumo-like charges related to funny business with a nonprofit, and facing charges that he ran campaigns at taxpayers' expense, says in a new court filing that current House Democratic Whip Bill DeWeese did similar stuff.

Although DeWeese hasn't been charged in an ongoing state attorney general's investigation, this whip vs. whip brouhaha has Republicans chortling about Democrats turning cannibalistic.

But not too loudly.

That's because a longtime Republican Senate aide, Alan David Berlin, 40, was just arrested and charged with trying to talk a 15-year-old boy into having sex with him while Berlin wore a panda suit.

I am not making this up.

Another example, I suppose, of how in Harrisburg the fur can fly.

Amid these distractions, the state deficit grows larger and partisan pols grow farther apart as we move closer to the end-of-June deadline for adopting a new state budget.

Today, the House Appropriations Committee is to vote on a Republican Senate-passed bare-bones budget that Gov. Ed and many Democrats call catastrophic to education and social services.

The Republican argument: When you have no money, spend no money.

There was talk that Committee Chairman Dwight Evans wouldn't allow a vote for fear that enough Democrats buy that argument.

"It's risky," said one insider. "If it gets to the floor, it could pass."

But Evans tells me he'll "absolutely" allow a vote by the committee's 21 Democrats and 15 Republicans. And when I ask how he thinks it'll go, he says, "I don't know. . . . I hope it's not along party lines."

The Senate passed it with no Democratic votes May 6. It includes significant cuts to Rendell's plan for schools, libraries, children's services, mortgage assistance and more, but holds the line on taxes.

The Guv would spend close to $2 billion more than the Senate and would levy new taxes on tobacco and energy extraction.

He's promised more cuts but so far hasn't named them.

Meanwhile, the smell of a personal-income-tax hike fills the air.

It emanates from the Democratic House, is flatly opposed by the GOP Senate and remains a "last resort" in the view of His Edness.

Every one-tenth-of-1-percent increase in the current 3.07 percent PIT adds $300 million to state coffers.

Since any economic recovery isn't likely to greatly improve state finances by next year - a legislative election year - lawmakers are more likely to hike taxes now than when their seats are on the line.

Also, it's easier to raise taxes than to cut spending, although an expected $3.2 billion deficit probably requires both.

I've written that I think a general tax increase is coming. But lawmakers can blunt (even avoid) it by draining their own Rainy Day Fund and legislative "discretionary" (slush) funds totaling $1 billion; cutting their staff, currently largest in the nation, to reduce annual costs of $335 million; and implementing governmentwide salary reductions.

California and North Carolina judges, for example, are taking voluntary pay cuts. Perhaps our 41 appellate and senior appellate judges can, too.

I'm sure they'd be willing to cooperate. Aren't you?

Oh, and for those following the fight to make the Eastern Box Turtle the official state reptile? There's competition.

The Democratic House passed the turtle bill last month 177-17 (all "no" voters were Republicans). Now there's a Republican Senate bill to name the rattlesnake the state reptile.

So stay tuned. There's a lot at stake. And the reptiles are about to fight it out. Maybe even with whips and, um, a panda bear.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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