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Dave Davies: The Legislature's partisan budgeting - slush funds, in effect - prolongs the state's mess

ALL RIGHT, from now on, the description of the Pennsylvania Legislature in any encyclopedia should read: "the place where things have been so screwed up for so long that they seem normal."

ALL RIGHT, from now on, the description of the Pennsylvania Legislature in any encyclopedia should read: "the place where things have been so screwed up for so long that they seem normal."

This occurred to me as I listened to state Attorney General Tom Corbett announce his corruption case against state Rep. John Perzel and seven others.

Corbett says they used up to $10 million in tax dollars to develop sophisticated computer systems for chosen Republicans to use in election campaigns.

But it wasn't the criminal charges against Perzel and company that got me. It was the supposedly legitimate state computer contracts Perzel allegedly used as cover for his political software project.

Corbett explained that there were bona fide state contracts for companies to develop software "for constituent services that would be available to all House Republican members and their staffs."

Whoa, I'm thinking. Back up there a second.

You're saying we use state tax dollars for a contract to help legislators provide constituent services, an important government function, but the tools are only available to Republican members? And that's OK?

Yup. That's the way it's done in Harrisburg.

I did some checking.

Of the $276 million in the Legislature's budget, roughly two-thirds is allocated along party lines.

There's $57 million in the state Senate budget for "Caucus Operations (R) and (D)." In the state House, we find $10 million each allotted to Republican and Democratic "Special Leadership Accounts," and $19 million each for "Legislative Management Committees."

As I see it, a legislative caucus is a voluntary association of members who agree to act in concert, and it makes sense that individual members' staffs will spend time communicating with others in the caucus.

But using tax dollars to establish separate Republican and Democratic staffs for policy, research, information technology staffs and putting control of members' district office budgets in the hands of party leaders is something else.

When you ask Harrisburg veterans about partisan budgeting, they say two things: It's always been done this way, and both parties do it, so it's fair.

Folks, public dollars are there to serve the public. If we whack them up into slush funds that party leaders can use to compete with each other, we invite exactly the kind of mischief alleged by grand juries in the Bonusgate probes.

So far, 12 Democrats and eight Republicans face charges.

The system also allows pols to use public funds to enforce discipline on their members. When Democratic Philadelphia state Rep. Rosita Youngblood bucked her leadership on a budget vote in 2002, she found her district staff budget whacked by 20-grand.

The other defense you hear of the Harrisburg Way is that this happens in every state capitol. But it doesn't.

Commonwealth Foundation spokesman Joe Sterns worked for the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus from 1998 to 2003, and he remembers traveling to other states and discovering how much more partisan Pennsylvania's Legislature is than others.

"In Minnesota, it would be unthinkable that the Republicans would have their own communications and IT [information technology] staffs," he said.

Brian Weberg, director of the legislative management program for the National Council of State Legislatures, said Pennsylvania is among "a handful of states that have primarily partisan staffing."

"We've railed against this for a long time," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania. He noted that Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have separate TV and radio studios, and that all four legislative caucuses have their own research departments, in addition to one available to all lawmakers.

It wastes money, he said, "and it helps promote antagonism between the caucuses, because they don't have to work together as much.

It would be up to legislative leaders to change things, and they don't show much inclination to.

I spoke to Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republican Leader Sam Smith, who's proposed a broad range of ethical reforms in response to the recent scandals, many of them well-advised, if they're enacted with real teeth.

What about an end to his partisan budgeting?

"It's a good question," he said. "It's so ingrained now. But if you have only one press office, who makes decisions about priorities? There would definitely be questions, and concerns of favoritism."

Far fewer questions than the current system raises, I think.