IT WASN'T Deep Throat and it wasn't in a parking garage, but it did strike me as interesting.

In a Capitol hallway in Harrisburg after hours, I met up with a veteran Democratic lawmaker from Western Pennsylvania. He's irked about the state budget, which is due next week but highly contested and promising to provide a long summer of white-hot political discord.

I should note that Western Pennsylvania Democrats often differ from Eastern Pennsylvania Democrats because they tend to represent an older constituency with lower tolerance for government foibles.

So, he offers a modest proposal aimed, he says, at getting to the truth.

This could be helpful, since there are two current versions of the truth.

Gov. Ed and many Democrats say that the "truth" is that Republican spending cuts would give us a state resembling the postapocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy's novel-soon-to-be movie The Road.

(Appropriately, some of it was filmed in Western Pennsylvania.)

Such cuts, they say, mean the end of education and agriculture, the loss of law enforcement and health care and, maybe, according to the Department of Environmental Protection (and I am not making this up), lethal "swarms of biting insects" spreading deadly West Nile virus.

In other words, society falls, the food chain crumbles and we all die.

Republican "truth" is that the state must slash spending because increasing taxes will wreck recovery, massacre middle-class families and throw those who now have jobs into the streets.

Not a direct death sentence, granted, but economic Armageddon implying bedlam and eventual anarchy.

The real truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle, but there are no signs yet of moving that way.

Responding to the Guv's plan to hike the personal-income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.57 percent to grab an extra $1.5 billion, Republican Senate President Joe Scarnati said: "The last thing we can afford to do is raise taxes on working people and job creators who are already struggling to make ends meet. . . . There is no support in the Republican Senate for this type of broad-based tax increase."

So, we face next week's fiscal-year deadline caught between two "truths."

The Western Pennsylvania Democrat in the hallway says we should do this: With no GOP support for a tax increase and with questionable Democratic support (though His Edness is scheduled to meet today with House and Senate Dems to sell it), pass a big-cuts budget without new taxes and see what happens.

If there indeed is lawless chaos in the streets, mosquito-borne death in the suburbs and barren fields everywhere else, come back and approve supplemental spending, even if it means increasing taxes.

"That," he says, "is a real last-resort tax hike."

(It also could give Democrats an I-told-you-so political label, as opposed to the tax-and-spend label Republicans hang on them now.)

He suggests that many Democrats support a no-tax budget because constituents, hurting from the recession and mindful of legislative greed and avarice (2005 pay raise; ongoing corruption probes) are especially touchy about paying higher taxes.

And it's possible that an improving economy decreases the need for higher taxes. As one GOP lawmaker puts it: "What if we increase taxes this year and the economy recovers next year and we face voters in 2010 trying to explain why we hiked their taxes?"

I still favor a stopgap budget to keep government running and state workers paid until pols agree on a spending plan. Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Ron Buxton says he's introducing such a bill.

I also like Harrisburg GOP Rep. Ron Marsico's measure to force the governor, the Cabinet and all lawmakers to forfeit pay every day the annual budget is late - although, honestly, such a law is only wishful thinking.

So, maybe an option ought to be a budget that does little else but point us toward the truth.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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