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John Baer: House Dems' take on shale tax is creepy and kooky

STATE HOUSE Democrats - the Addams Family of Pennsylvania politics - are known for putting the D in dysfunction, and they're at it again.

STATE HOUSE Democrats - the Addams Family of Pennsylvania politics - are known for putting the D in dysfunction, and they're at it again.

The state faces fiscal horrors from underfunded pensions, loss of federal stimulus money, an unemployment-compensation-fund bust and more.

But House-controlling D's just spooked efforts to tax natural gas from Marcellus Shale and reap hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Oh, they passed a tax bill, with the help of a dozen southeast (where there is no shale) Republicans, including Philly Rep. Dennis O'Brien.

And they needed GOPers. Ten Democrats from western counties (where there's plenty of shale) voted "no." The measure passed, 104-94.

But Democratic leaders, especially Luzerne County Rep. Todd Eachus and Philly Rep. Dwight Evans, were driving the hearse.

The result, what they call "a starting point," could be buried in just a few finger-snaps. Allow me to count the ways.

First, House D's took Gov. Rendell's initial request for a tax rate of 5 percent and basically doubled it to almost 10 percent. Republican Senate President Joe Scarnati immediately labeled the rate "ridiculous."

Why would leaders of one chamber pass a measure on the highest-profile issue in the state, as the legislative calendar runs down, that leaders in the other chamber call inane?

Well, either they don't really want the tax or they have all the communication skills of the Addams' Cousin Itt.

Second, because revenue bills by law must start in the House, waiting to act until last Wednesday blew an agreed-to Oct. 1 deadline promised during last summer's budget deal.

But, hey, credibility in the House is like a pulse on a corpse - pretty rare.

Third, the legislative vehicle used, a county-code bill dealing with bonding/insurance requirements for local officials, appears to violate the state Constitution.

Separate sections of Article III say that no bill shall be passed that's altered "to change its original purpose," no bill shall be passed "containing more than one subject" and all revenue-raising bills "shall originate in the House."

What the House passed was a Senate bill (SB 1155) with an altered purpose and more than one subject. Three for three.

GOP Senate legal counsel Drew Crompton says it's "likely unconstitutional."

Fourth, there might be attempted humor here. The bill's listed sponsor is Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, arguably the Senate's most conservative member and the last person likely to vote for this or any tax.

"I don't see any humor in it; they might," Eichelberger tells me. "It's clearly unconstitutional. . . . I'm not going to support the tax, period."

What now?

Senators say they'll want a compromise but insist on a much lower tax rate. Their schedule calls for three more days in the current two-year session: Oct. 12, 13 and 14.

Evans says "we don't believe" that the bill is unconstitutional (well, then), that Dems are "open to discussion" on the rate and that the Senate should schedule more days. "We get paid until Nov. 30," he adds.

Yeah? You already got paid for a year and nine months; why didn't you do something sooner?

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, who voted for the House bill, suspects that the Senate will wait, pass something unacceptable to the House and the Guv and then take off for the year.

A cynic might say "leaders" don't want to anger either side of the debate in election season.

Or that gas-industry gifts to more than 100 lawmakers - gifts favoring Republicans over Democrats and including $117,575 to Senate leader Scarnati, according to tracking by Common Cause and Conservation Voters - are designed to delay a final vote until next year, when maybe the GOP controls the Legislature and the governor's office.

Republican Tom Corbett opposes a tax. Democrat Dan Onorato supports it.

I'm waiting to hear from Uncle Fester. Snap, snap.

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