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Western Pennsylvania's 'Blue Dog' Democrats battle tax increase

HARRISBURG -- Democratic Rep. Nick Kotik of Coraopolis formed the Legislature's "Blue Dog" caucus about a year ago, when divisive social issues resurfaced in the House.

The group of mostly Western Pennsylvania lawmakers talked informally about their socially conservative leanings and how to better assert themselves.

But it wasn't until Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell proposed raising the personal income tax by 16 percent last month to close the state's $3.2 billion deficit that the Blue Dogs really started to bark.

"That kind of crystallized the formation of the Blue Dogs," Kotik said. "Some of our members said, 'Well, let's have a meeting,' and we've had subsequent meetings. I think we're getting the respect now that we didn't get before."

Kotik emphatically announced the group's first official meeting June 16 on the House floor to rousing cheers from members, following news that afternoon of Rendell's tax proposal.

Kotik modeled the caucus after the Blue Dogs in Congress, a powerful group of about 60 conservative Democrats.

"A lot of us aren't prepared at this particular point and time to support any broad-based tax increase and we want to be involved in the process and we want to be proposing alternatives," Kotik said following that first meeting.

As state budget negotiations drag on, the group of about 20 lawmakers has become a potential block of votes against an income tax hike and a dissenting voice to Democratic leadership.

"The Blue Dog caucus is just another voice in the cacophony that makes up the Democratic Party's large tent," said Rendell's spokesman Chuck Ardo. " We would hope they will look at the budget numbers in a realistic way and make their decision based on them. Every caucus in the Legislature has differences within its membership."

Kotik said the Blue Dogs should receive a bulk of credit for fighting the income tax hike because, unlike the House GOP minority, they are putting their necks on the line with Democratic Caucus leaders.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, said the Blue Dogs "haven't blocked any (income tax) yet. The end result of what we do will be articulated at the end, so there's been no final conclusion of what that's going to be."

"It takes guts to stand up for your constituents and say no to the governor," said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

The Rendell administration and House leadership insist the Blue Dogs are not problematic, but Kotik said there has been "implicit" pressure on them, as well as what he perceives as disrespect. He said most of the jabs members take from fellow Democrats are good-natured, but some have been from lawmakers trying to score points with leadership and some have gone too far.

Recently, Kotik said, he stood up during caucus and told other House Democrats to respect their point of view.

"He was right on. I think he got his point across," said Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, a fellow Blue Dog. "I guess there was a little bit of that in the air and he handled that. Nick's a good leader."

Nick Pipitone is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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