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A paralysis in Harrisburg unequaled for decades

The question for Tony May was this: When was the last time that Pennsylvania state government was in this much disarray?

The question for Tony May was this: When was the last time that Pennsylvania state government was in this much disarray?

The Harrisburg veteran had to think. He's been around a long time. He was press secretary for Democratic Gov. Milton J. Shapp in the 1970s. He did the same job for Democrat Robert P. Casey in the '90s.

"We're in new times here," he said finally. "We've never had a situation before where there has been an economic crisis running parallel to a corruption or ethics crisis."

At least not in his memory, he said.

The atmosphere of near-paralysis that now grips Harrisburg was on grim display again yesterday afternoon.

Even as a tardy state House was struggling to reach agreement on a near-final piece of budget legislation promised in October, the state attorney general was at a microphone announcing further charges in his long-running probe of legislative corruption.

It was the 168th consecutive day on which the state didn't have a completed budget; it was due June 30. The missing element was $250 million that is to come from taxes and fees from the proposal to add table games to slots parlors. That debate also held up funding for several state-related universities, including Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln.

For Attorney General Tom Corbett, the day brought the third set of sweeping corruption charges he has filed since July 2008 against people currently or formerly on the legislative payroll - charges related to use of public funds for political purposes.

The charges against House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) and two other Democrats brought to 25 the number of people caught up in the scandal - 15 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

Corbett, a Republican candidate for governor, has made it clear the investigation is not over.

Some of what's happening in Harrisburg is not the fault of state leaders. With the recession having sapped billions of dollars from state revenues, 2009 figured to be a tough budget year to begin with. No one wanted to slash programs or raise taxes.

Add to that a climate of partisanship and acrimony, and Harrisburg had a recipe for paralysis. Fear of the Corbett probe additionally has made legislators look over their shoulders.

It also doesn't help that Gov. Rendell is in the last 13 months of his two terms in office. Nothing much ever gets done in a governor's lame-duck period.

Major action in Harrisburg might have to wait for the outcome of the gubernatorial battle now shaping up among the five Democrats and three Republicans seeking to become successor to Rendell, who cannot run again.

Most of the candidates cited the dysfunction in Harrisburg when they addressed a gathering of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association during the recent Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York.

State Rep. Sam Rohrer (R., Berks) said that new legislators typically arrive in Harrisburg hoping to create change, but soon have that washed out of them.

"They meet the old bulls who tell them how the system really works," Rohrer said. "They tell them what they have to do to get ahead, how to raise money. . . . They're told: 'Don't rock the boat. Don't get too crazy with your ideas. Stay in the middle lane.' "

As a result, he said, the state's problems don't get fixed.

Yesterday, a half-hour before Corbett's news conference, Rendell was at a microphone himself. He told reporters that, with revenue lagging more than expected, he had to make more cuts.

Rendell said the legislative process is "broken and needs to be fixed."

But he added: "It is amazing to me that we have continued on without any major disruption."

Rendell's revenue secretary, Stephen Stetler, had just resigned. Stetler, a former Democratic leader in the House, was one of the three people Corbett charged yesterday.

Alan Novak, a former Republican state chairman, blamed legislative delays more on revenue shortfalls than on legislative disarray.

"I don't think [legislators] are as paralyzed as people think," he said. "Things are getting done. Government is still functioning."

But Tim Reeves, press secretary to former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge from 1995 to 2001, said the legislature has changed over the years in ways that lead to greater emphasis on members getting reelected and less on doing the public's business.

Years ago, he said, legislation was in the control of top leaders in each House. Most rank-and-file members held outside jobs.

Over the years, he said, efforts have been made to raise salaries and professionalize the legislature. This has led to members working full-time. And it has given them a bigger stake in winning reelection.

The job of a legislative leader, in turn, has become less about moving bills and more about raising money for members' elections, Reeves said.

That's what got DeWeese and others in trouble, if the Corbett charges are true.

May, the former aide to Shapp and Casey, said that today's crisis atmosphere is like nothing since at least the Shapp era.

"There has been nothing this disruptive," he said.