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Woes across government branches tarnish Pa.'s image, experts say

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, 10:30 p.m.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, signed a $23.4 billion, line-item-vetoed spending plan that allows the state to begin pumping money to cash-strapped school districts and human service agencies.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
The Pennsylvania State Capitol's Main Rotunda
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane
Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Michael Eakin is suspended from his job with pay while a state judicial ethics court considers allegations his email practices have tainted the court system.

HARRISBURG — Political analysts say Pennsylvania's national reputation is tarnished by an unfinished state budget, an attorney general facing criminal charges, a convicted state treasurer and scandals on its Supreme Court, most recently involving offensive emails.

“This is worse than Illinois,” which has no state budget, said Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “We're talking about all three branches of government. People who travel to other states are constantly asked, ‘What the hell is going on in Pennsylvania?' Woody Allen would have a great time starring in a movie: Pennsylvania, the latest banana republic.”

Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College, sums it up: “State government is a mess.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, a York Democrat, last month signed a partial $24 billion state budget, leaving $8 billion in proposed spending unresolved. For six months, Wolf couldn't get the Republican-controlled House to agree to higher spending levels and tax increases.

The Republican-controlled Senate and Democrats in both chambers were on board with his proposed spending in a budget “framework,” Wolf said.

Wolf introduces his 2016-17 budget next month while attempting to negotiate a finish to the current budget. Many House Republicans say there is no impasse and a budget is in place. But funding for schools and state prisons won't last through the June 30 end to the fiscal year. There's no tax code and no agreement on funding state-related universities.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane is charged with a dozen crimes, including felony perjury. The Supreme Court has suspended her law license. The Senate is considering a potential vote to remove her from office.

Former state Treasurer Rob McCord last year pleaded guilty to shaking down contractors for campaign money. Wolf appointed, and the Legislature confirmed, business executive Tim Reese to hold the office until this year's scheduled election for the treasurer's office.

Trouble on the Supreme Court began in 2013 when former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican from Marshall, was convicted of using public resources for campaigns. The following year, former Justice Seamus McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat, resigned after his colleagues suspended him for sending hundreds of pornographic emails.

Justice Michael Eakin of Cumberland County is suspended, pending a trial, for sending and receiving emails that a judicial ethics panel has deemed offensive.

“It's very reasonable right now to raise questions about how sound our institutions are, in terms of doing the jobs people elected them to,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “It certainly doesn't bode well for the perception of Pennsylvania for businesses considering coming to the state.”

Recent national stories on Pennsylvania have addressed scandal and the offensive emails captured on the Office of Attorney General servers, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

“Pennsylvania is just looking, from a national perspective, as more dysfunctional than most political systems in the country,” Leckrone said.

Leckrone and G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said a politically divided government exacerbates the state's image problem — even though it is what Pennsylvanians voted for in 2014.

“Republicans were overwhelmingly elected to cut taxes and spending. Wolf believes he was given a mandate” to boost education spending and impose a tax on the natural gas industry, Madonna said.

“What we have now is more frustration, more confusion, and more animosity than we've had at any time since the 1970s,” Madonna said. ‘There's more uncertainty about the future, among political leaders, than I've seen in decades.”

As this year's primary election unfolds, Kane will be a constant reminder of problems in that office, whether she runs for re-election as she has stated, or not, Kopko said. “It will be really a tough race for Democrats,” he said. “Republicans will make her the issue.”

As Wolf proposes his new budget, its passage will become “exceptionally difficult,” Kopko said. Handling two budgets at once is “unchartered territory,” he said.

It isn't likely that lawmakers will hike taxes in an election year for the House and half of the Senate.

“We're going to have a neutered governor like we've never seen before,” Strauss said.

Wolf's spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the governor “inherited a multibillion-dollar deficit and schools that have been decimated, both as a result of the failed status quo and irresponsible budgets passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.”

“That same Republican-controlled Legislature recently sent the governor an irresponsible budget that was unbalanced by $500 million, would have grown the already multibillion-dollar deficit and made a $95 million cut to education,” Sheridan said. “The governor used his line-item veto power to ensure it was in balance.”

Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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