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Pa. House Speaker Sam Smith announces he'll retire

| Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, 9:42 a.m.
Rep. Camille 'Bud' George of Clearfield County, right, the ranking Democrat on the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee since 1983, right, laughs as he is honored by Speaker of the Pennsylvania House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, left, at his farewell address on the floor of the House Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 at the capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. George has served over three decades in the House. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

HARRISBURG — State House Speaker Sam Smith, facing a Republican challenge from an opponent he narrowly defeated two years ago, announced Tuesday he won't seek re-election in the May 20 primary.

Smith, 58, of Punxsutawney has been a fixture in GOP leadership since 2000 and a member of the House for 28 years. His announcement positions House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, to be elected speaker in January 2015, provided Republicans retain control of the House in November.

Other GOP leaders whom lobbyists and lawmakers said could become majority leader include Rep. David Reed of Indiana County, the GOP policy chairman; appropriations committee Chairman Bill Adolph of Delaware County; caucus secretary Mike Vereb of Montgomery County; and Rep. Stan Saylor, the whip from York County.

Smith beat Chris Dush by fewer than 500 votes in a three-way race two years ago. Since then, Smith helped engineer a $2.4 billion transportation bill that raised gas prices, which opponents derided as a tax increase.

“Were it not for the fact that he is facing a rematch against a formidable challenger, he would be seeking another term,” said Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a group that contributes to conservative challengers in Republican primaries.

Smith strongly denied the Dush rematch prompted his retirement.

“The notion I am walking away from a fight is laughable,” he said at an informal Capitol news conference.

The real reason he's retiring, he said, is he lost the “fire” to do the speaker's job effectively.

“I just wasn't enjoying the job ... putting 100 percent into it,” he said. He'll serve through November.

Dush, 52, a retired corrections officer from Brookville, claims no credit for forcing Smith's hand. “It's never been about him and me. It's about what needs to be done,” said Dush, who calls himself a “Tea Party sympathizer.” He supports term limits and says he would serve only “two or three (terms).” He has signed a pledge not to add benefits to his state pension.

He suspects the Republican Party will still go out of its way to defeat him because “I won't play by the rules” in Harrisburg.

Smith holds the seat previously held by his father, L. Eugene “Snuffy” Smith.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said Smith “has offered solid direction for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, while spearheading numerous, significant legislative accomplishments.”

Smith authored the law that established Accountability Block Grants to give school districts flexibility in spending state money. He also played a key role in development of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit that provides business-paid scholarships for children to attend private and parochial schools. In return, businesses get a tax credit.

Turzai said Smith's “ability to remain calm and bipartisan under pressure has earned him immense respect among our colleagues.”

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said Smith led his caucus and the House “through a period of great upheaval and change.”

Smith was called by the defense in a 2011 corruption trial, testifying that he was not aware House contracts were purchased with tax dollars for campaign use. He says he was lied to about the contracts. Smith was not charged or accused of wrongdoing.

Nine House Republican officials, ex-lawmakers and staffers, were convicted. Eight former leaders of both parties in the House and Senate went to prison. Asked if that was a factor in his decision, Smith said it was not, though it sapped his energy and enthusiasm.

“While friends and supporters have been overwhelming in encouraging me to continue to run, the truth is, my heart is not in it, and my effort would be subpar, and that would not be fair or good for any of us,” Smith said in a prepared statement.

“For 27 years, Sam Smith has given a voice to those who sought common sense and fiscal sanity in their government,” said Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason.

Smith said he has no job lined up and is not interested in seeking another elected office. He said he won't have a vote in the next speaker's election but agreed the majority leader usually has an edge.

“I've been in position to see the good, bad and ugly of this place,” he said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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