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Conservative wave seems to miss Pennsylvania

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, April 23, 2011

Historic gains by the GOP in statehouses across the country are fast-tracking traditionally conservative policy changes that go beyond spending cuts, targeting issues such as collective bargaining, welfare and abortion.

Some political observers say Pennsylvania Republicans, who control both legislative chambers and the governor's mansion for the first time in eight years, are taking a more measured approach.

"A conservative wish list hasn't been moved forward at a fast pace here because our politicians usually don't move quickly, no matter who is in charge," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "They tend to be more pragmatic and congregate toward the middle."

Some Pennsylvania Democrats disagree.

"Pennsylvania is sailing under the radar, but (Republican leaders are) overreaching here just like they are in states all across the country," Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist Mark Nevins said.

Nevins pointed to Gov. Tom Corbett terminating the adultBasic health insurance program for 41,000 low-income adults shortly after taking office. The administration said money used to fund the program fell $55 million short, making it unsustainable with the state's $4.2 billion deficit.

Corbett's office did not return calls. Neither did House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

Moves by GOP majorities in other states have dominated headlines and spurred statehouse protests for much of 2011.

An effort by Wisconsin's Republican governor to restrict collective bargaining by public workers, followed by a similar one in Ohio, has been a touchstone for change occurring in 25 states where Republicans control legislatures and 29 states with GOP governors.

Elsewhere, legislatures now unencumbered by Democratic majorities are pursuing — and passing — policies such as expanded gun rights, immigration laws, school vouchers, and curtailed abortion rights and jobless and post-retirement benefits. Some legislatures are debating plans to require photo IDs of voters at polling places and proof that presidential candidates are natural-born citizens.

Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer said Pennsylvania lawmakers are discussing similar policies, but the ideas are "in their infancy." It's too soon to tell whether any might gain traction.

Pennsylvania Republicans have proposed or taken steps to: privatize state liquor stores; end the Port Authority's monopoly of public transit in Allegheny County, so private providers could flourish; not impose taxes or regulations on Marcellus shale gas drillers; allow students to attend private or parochial schools with state-paid vouchers; and expand use of lethal force in self-defense to outside the home.

"A lot of these types of issues come up every legislative session, on both sides, but they usually don't get very far. With Republicans controlling everything now, perhaps they will," Brauer said.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont said he and fellow Democrats won't roll over.

"We don't have a majority, but we'll do the best we can to point out the problems with their agenda. I think the more we point out what they are really trying to do, average Pennsylvanians will oppose it," Dermody said.

Joseph DiSarro, who chairs the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, doesn't expect Pennsylvania Republicans to go to extremes.

"Politically, we're not that volatile. We don't have much extremism is Pennsylvania, and there's no agenda or contract to make radical changes. We're more pragmatic," DiSarro said.

Corbett embodies that as a leader, DiSarro said.

"He doesn't wear social issues on his sleeve or try to reach too far. He is governing the way he operated as attorney general — as someone who handles problems brought to his desk. He recognizes that you don't set an agenda that is unreachable or pursue issues that have a tremendous backlash that frustrates the rest of your agenda," DiSarro said.

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