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Karen Heller: Pa., N.J.: Better to look good than do good

Leaders are putting appearances - whether in fashion or in finances - ahead of dire needs.

Gary Alexander (left), Pa.'s secretary of public welfare, dressed in the manner that he has demanded of his staff. A tough-talking N.J. Gov. Chris Christie (right) was recently ordered to restore funding to poor school districts. (AP/Staff/file photos)
Gary Alexander (left), Pa.'s secretary of public welfare, dressed in the manner that he has demanded of his staff. A tough-talking N.J. Gov. Chris Christie (right) was recently ordered to restore funding to poor school districts. (AP/Staff/file photos)Read more

Who knew the road to ruin was trod with toe cleavage? Or that a glimpse of no stocking could prove so shocking?

Harrisburg has long been a hotbed of temptation - for legislators fondling Other People's Money, sometimes in the middle of the night.

To maintain professional decorum, Secretary of Public Welfare Gary Alexander enforced a staff dress code: no skorts, flip-flops, tattered jeans, hats. For a meeting of his leadership team, Alexander insisted that men appear in suit and tie and that women wear "closed-toe shoes and nylons or tights."

Perhaps Alexander, an ordained deacon, wants to return his department, whose focus is supposed to be the poor, to the Mad Men era, except that might lead to midafternoon nips and nooky. His model of comportment seems more Ozzie and Harriet.

In the warmer months, most women under the age of 80 don't wear closed-toe shoes and nylons. Fashion editors, Michelle Obama, women perambulating the streets of Center City, nuns, all are now unqualified to be leaders at the DPW.

In announcing Gov. Corbett's top appointments, the press office made a point of listing how long each nominee had been married - good news, citizens! - almost all of them for decades. When being single, divorced, or gay is increasingly accepted, is this achievement relevant for public service?

Nylons and silver anniversaries are the window dressing of a troubling agenda. Our state governments are trying to will us back to a simpler, crueler time when rich men prosper with limited taxes and the poor can fend for themselves. Harrisburg and Trenton appear to be waging a battle over which can adopt the more regressive policies faster.

Pennsylvania House Republicans, seizing an opportunity after the revelation of Kermit Gosnell's West Philadelphia butcher shop and the state Department of Health's failure to properly inspect, this month approved legislation that would impose some of the nation's strictest, costliest operating regulations on Pennsylvania's 24 free-standing abortion clinics.

If the state Senate (where a far more sensible bill has been proposed) approves, the rules could force several sites to close, which appears to be the legislation's true intent.

"I thought conservatives were supposed to be against big government and intrusive, overburdening regulations," said Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny). "This bill would drive many women to seek risky, illegal abortions based on price - the same issue that drove desperate women to the Philadelphia house of horrors."

They're legislating us back to 1973.

House Republicans also proposed whacking a quarter of all AIDS program funding, and 9 to 11 percent of the DPW's child-care assistance, rape-crisis and domestic-violence services, food stamps, and breast cancer screening.

Fear not. The staff that helps fewer people in tough times will be properly attired. You will not be turned away by an employee in a skort.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie tried to strip funding for poorer school districts until the state Supreme Court last week ordered him to restore $500 million.

That same week, Christie proposed slashing Medicaid coverage to households earning $30,000 a year. Far too rich. Under his plan, you can earn no more than about $6,000.

Mind you, that's pretax income.

For a family of four.

Decent money in Bulgaria, where that is the median income, but not in Camden.

If Christie's plan is approved, a woman earning $118 a week for her three children would not qualify for medical coverage. He wants to eliminate $7.5 million in funding to family-planning clinics, which provide cancer screenings, STD treatment, and birth control. Since last year's initial funding cut, six of the 58 clinics in our most densely populated state have closed.

The true measure of our nation is not talking tough or dressing nice, but how we help the less fortunate.

In our state budget cuts, it's women and children first.