WE OUGHT to start sending sheep to the Legislature.

I know you think we already do, but I mean for real. Hear me out.

We save a ton of money even if we phase them in.

Most sheep don't drive so we save on taxpayer-financed car leases and mileage. They don't need golden-fleece health benefits or fat pensions; we just put them out to pasture.

We save a bundle on catered Capitol meals costing taxpayers nearly $250,000 during the last legislative session ($20,550 in one day), according to a recent report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Heck, sheep can eat grass in Capitol Park and on highway medians around Harrisburg.

We save on the cost of lawmakers' per diems, $30,000 to $50,000 a day.

Sheep are easy to herd, rarely go on the lam and the influence of special interests would decline - I can think of only a few lobbyists who'd want to take sheep out.

And, really, is there is any better argument for reducing humans in our overlarge, overstaffed, underperforming Legislature than Gov. Ed's comments while announcing the state budget agreement last Friday?

The Guv withheld specifics because he didn't want rank-and-file members (that would be, oh, 247 of the 253 legislators) to learn the details in the media.

This, of course, is because just six "leaders" negotiated budget terms. Most lawmakers had virtually nothing to do with the deal. The vast majority actually learns details only from the media.

I can't tell you how many times during the 80-day budget impasse that a nonleadership lawmaker asked me what was going on.

Now, they're asked to line up like sheep and approve a budget in which they had little input. So why not just elect sheep?

"Not all of us are sheep," says Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland County, a central Pennsylvania conservative elected in 2004.

But he concedes: "Rank-and-file members have not seen one piece of paper" on the deal. "The process has been horrible," Grell says, "If ever the rank-and-file was going to coalesce behind something, it's now, and it should be budget-process reform."

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, elected in 2006, is so frustrated he's holding a public forum next month with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Commonwealth Foundation and grassroots activist group Democracy Rising PA on ways to improve the process.

"Nobody wants to go through this," Conklin says. "We all look bad."

I know there are sheep up in Centre County, so I ask Conklin what he thinks of my idea. "I'm not going to answer that one," he says.

It isn't just relative newbies who are frustrated.

Veteran Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, says, "This is my 15th budget and it's been embarrassing professionally and personally."

He adds, "We ought to put something in place to get this done on time . . . what we got [in the pending deal] could have been done back at the end of June."

There are legislative proposals, none by leadership, forcing lawmakers to forfeit pay if a budget is late, allowing the prior year's budget to kick in and (appealingly) reducing the Legislature by half, by a third or by 20 seats every 10 years before redistricting for the next 30 years.

One, I suppose, can hope.

But veteran Democratic Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster County reminds me that things have been worse. In 1991, facing a half-billion-dollar deficit (this year's was $3.5 billion), lawmakers raised taxes by nearly $3 billion (new taxes this year total about $700 million) after Christmas-treeing a budget bill with all sorts of goodies.

"The difference then was everybody got to say what they wanted," Sturla says.

This year, everybody gets to say "Baaaa." *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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