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Pa. Democrats: Governor punishing us for supporting GOP budget

| Wednesday, April 6, 2016, 5:54 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Pennlive.com
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Some Democratic lawmakers who broke ranks and voted for a Republican-crafted state budget say Gov. Tom Wolf is punishing them by hampering their ability to solve basic constituent problems.

In a letter to the governor Tuesday, 11 lawmakers said that starting about two weeks ago, their staffers were told by contacts at a number of state agencies they must go directly through Wolf's office for assistance. Prior to that, staff members worked through their agency contacts to resolve simple constituent issues, the legislators said.

“It's a very childish effort. I don't know what anybody thinks they're proving by doing this,” said state Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Kennedy, one of the signers of the letter. “I represent 62,000 people, and I do the best job I can to vote what I think is in their best interest. I don't think this kind of response is appropriate.”

“The governor's top priority is ensuring constituent needs, and concerns are addressed immediately. Nothing has changed,” Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said.

Partisan bickering — one factor that led to a nine-month budget impasse — has reached new heights in Harrisburg. But lawmakers said they were surprised the administration would go after fellow Democrats.

“Somebody in the administration is watching ‘House of Cards,' and they think that's how it's supposed to be,” said Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, referencing a Netflix show about Washington politics. Burns also signed the letter to Wolf.

In their letter, the lawmakers asked Wolf to put aside “any thoughts of retribution” so they can move forward.

“After a nine-month budget impasse, our vote for the House-approved budget was a ‘vote of necessity,' ” the letter states. “We had the courage to say ‘enough is enough and now let's move forward.' ”

Sheridan did not respond to questions about whether Wolf had seen lawmakers' letter.

State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said his staff, which regularly helps residents with items such as environmental permits, hasn't noticed anything suggesting a policy change for requesting information was put in place.

“We've had no problem like that,” Pyle said. “We've seen no change.”

Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Uniontown, who signed the letter, said he's working on a bill to consolidate school districts and save taxpayers money, and he has had problems getting information.

“I called the Department of Education yesterday, and I couldn't get any information I need to further a project I've worked on for the last three years,” Mahoney said. “I don't know if he's just trying to wield his power ... or trying to prove a point. It's childish.”

Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, who did not sign the letter, said the policy change did not appear to be uniform.

“Our leadership has no concern as long as members are getting their questions answered and their needs met,” Patton said. “So far, that appears to be taking place.”

But Burns said legislative liaisons in each state department were a consistent contact point with whom staffers developed relationships to follow up on issues. When his staff called the governor's office to check the status of a Department of Environmental Protection permit application, they were brushed off and told the office was “looking into it.”

“I have no idea what's going on,” he said. “I have no one to follow up with other than the person I called.”

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said his members have trouble getting basic data from some agencies, but he hasn't heard about a new policy for constituent requests.

“We are waiting for the guy who gave that inauguration speech last January about working together and finding solutions to step foot in that governor's office,” he said. “Because that guy has never been there yet.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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