Politics Tested Pa. GOP Leaders, Court In 2011

Peter Jackson
Associated Press

In the world of Pennsylvania politics, 2011 will be remembered as a year of mixed accomplishments from a new, Republican-controlled state government and for corruption convictions that extinguished the careers of one-time legislative stars.

The first budget passed under Gov. Tom Corbett met his goal of cutting spending and holding taxes steady, but he struggled to achieve other major changes even with a newly elected GOP majority in the House that gave his party control of the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, a former House speaker was among nine people connected to the House Republican caucus who were convicted or who pleaded guilty to politically inspired criminal activity in a nearly 5-year-old corruption investigation.

The year also was pivotal for veteran lawmakers and political newcomers eyeing campaigns in 2012.

More than a half-dozen Republican and Democratic candidates already are vowing to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s re-election bid next year. And nomination battles appear inevitable in both parties in the looming campaign for state attorney general.

The state’s legislative and congressional districts were redrawn to reflect population shifts evident in the 2010 census. Despite complaints that redistricting was overly partisan, a panel including leaders from both houses approved new maps for the 203 House districts and the 50 Senate districts. Separate legislation carved the state into 18 new congressional districts —

Pennsylvania is losing one U.S. House seat — and was signed into law.
The year’s main event, politically speaking, was at the state Capitol.
Corbett, the state’s first Republican chief executive in eight years, took office in January facing a projected $4 billion budget shortfall and vowing to keep his campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

The $27.2 billion budget was approved in June — without any Democratic support — and it closely tracked Corbett’s proposal. It reduced spending by about 3 percent, including a $1 billion-plus cut for public schools and higher education, while holding taxes level.

Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said Corbett deserves credit for leading the state out of a potential fiscal crisis.

During the first half of the year at least, he said, Corbett “was by far the dominant force in the governance of the state.”

Lawmakers have approved some of Corbett’s other priorities, including laws that limit liability for negligence in some civil court cases and that broaden the need for voters to sign off when school boards want to raise taxes beyond the inflation rate.

But much bigger Corbett initiatives remain stalled, including privatizing state-controlled liquor and wine sales, and using taxpayer-financed vouchers to help poor families in the worst-performing school districts send their children to private schools or better public ones.

Corbett also became widely viewed as an obstacle by lawmakers in both parties who have introduced more than a dozen bills to impose a tax or fee on the companies extracting natural gas from the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation.

Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state that does not tax the value or volume of the gas.

The Senate has approved a bill that would impose a fee of $360,000 over 20 years — about 3 percent of the expected value of production — on each of the thousands of wells.

The governor, who accepted nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the industry and vowed not to tax it, has proposed letting counties decide whether to impose an “impact fee” worth less than half that much. The House endorsed that approach, setting the stage for negotiations with the Senate in the new year.

Christopher Borick, a professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, says he is surprised the GOP has not accomplished more.

“The expectation was that 2011 would be a year for Republicans to move long bottled-up legislation forward,” Borick said. “It’s inched forward, but not near the point where the outcome has been realized.”

In the presidential election arena, Corbett forged an alliance with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi on his plan to change Pennsylvania’s winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Pileggi and Corbett want to award candidates an electoral vote for each of the 18 congressional districts they win and give the other two votes to the winner of the statewide balloting.

Republican Party leaders are divided over the plan even though it would guarantee the GOP an electoral vote for the first time in 24 years. Democrats call it a partisan attempt to hurt President Barack Obama’s re-election chances in battleground Pennsylvania. Its prospects remain unclear.

The consequences of the legislative corruption probe that Corbett launched in early 2007 — in his previous job as Pennsylvania’s attorney general — continued to play out at the Dauphin County Courthouse, a few blocks from the Capitol.

So far, 19 former House members and former House aides from both parties have been convicted by juries or pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from allegations they illegally used public money, employees or other resources for political purposes. They include three former members of House leadership.
Most of the cases involving Democratic defendants were resolved by this year, although three are awaiting trial. GOP defendants were the primary focus in 2011.

Former Speaker John Perzel, who prosecutors portrayed as the mastermind of a scheme to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to develop sophisticated software for electioneering, was among seven Republican defendants who pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for cooperating with the state.
The longtime Philadelphia lawmaker testified against the only two GOP defendants who stood trial. After a six-week trial this fall, a jury convicted former Rep. Brett Feese, once a rising star who held a succession of leadership posts, and co-defendant Jill Seaman, a former aide, on all 40 criminal counts against each of them.

Sentencing is expected to begin in January.

In a separate corruption case in Allegheny County court, GOP state Sen. Jane Orie faces a retrial on charges involving the alleged use of her Senate staff to do political work. In the same proceeding, she is to be tried on forgery and perjury charges that grew out of her mistrial earlier this year. She disputes the charges.

In Philadelphia, a federal judge resentenced former Democratic state Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia to 61 months in prison in November after a U.S. appeals court threw out his original 55-month term. Prosecutors had argued for a sentence of at least 17 years for the once-powerful Fumo, who was convicted of defrauding the state Senate, a South Philadelphia nonprofit and a maritime museum by co-opting their staff and resources to renovate his mansion and provide him with yachts and luxury cars.

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