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Mine! Mine! Mine!

Sunday, December 21, 2003

It is strange how, six months past deadline, Pennsylvania has functioned without a budget. Its schools, libraries and drug-and-alcohol treatment programs wither from neglect as the legislators behave like the seagulls in "Finding Nemo," endlessly losing easy prey while squawking, "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican leaders have been meeting the last few days, arguing not over whether to raise taxes, but by how much. Rendell at first wanted to push the rate to 3.75 percent. Republicans held out for 2.99 percent -- no kidding, just like those car ads for $9,999.99, as if "under 3 percent" will provide cover with voters.

At this juncture, it appears they will settle somewhere around 3.07 percent, plus a tax on professional sports franchises, cell phone companies, still more taxes on tobacco, though no additional taxes on poured drinks. Party responsibly.

A budget could be forthcoming this week, but only after the usual backroom crowd loads it with a variety of programs legislators can parcel out to voters in their district after the fashion of tsars feeding the peasants with their own money.

"Mine! Mine! Mine!"

The Senate outraged the House a few days ago when members of the upper chamber stripped away $50 million in walking around money disguised as "community economic" development grants. House members enjoy posing for cameras in front of large checks in small towns by way of proof that they alone possess the magic to make it rain money from clouds of their own building.

Much of that money will likely find its way back into the budget or, of course, Rendell won't get one. He wanted $250 million in new allocations for early childhood education, but he may have to settle for less. That is to say, Ed Rendell thinks it uncivilized that kindergartens in the state can afford to stay open only a half-day, that poor children start school unready for books and numbers.

To do this, Rendell needs to raise taxes because it is axiomatic that during a recession such as the one we just weathered, tax revenues dip because earnings dip and, hence, government looks at all of our pockets and hopes to dip a bit deeper.

"Mine! Mine! Mine!"

In the midst of this standoff comes the casino crowd. Rendell, along with an array of Democrats from the Sinatra wing of the party, would like to install slot machines throughout the commonwealth like so many overstuffed couches to collect the spare change of people who prefer being tricked out of their money to being taxed out of it.

The slots bill hinges on trading lower property taxes for a state share of the quarters dumped into machines at various racetracks and licensed parlors out-of-towners hope to put up in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the center of the state.

Precisely how many sites will get them is, of course, a matter of great negotiation. Legislators in the state's conservative middle will have a hard time selling gambling to their constituents, even if these parlors are headed to places where gambling is no more remarkable an act than taking an extra slice of pie.

This pie will be divvied up, as ever, by people shouting: "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

In the midst of this well-organized pillage, one of the few voices of seemly government is all but drowned out. State Rep. Greg Vitali is pushing a bill that would eliminate $1.7 million annually handed out for broadcast "public service" announcements featuring incumbent legislators. These announcements go on television in the months preceding close elections to boost members in tight races -- effectively providing taxpayer funding for tight reelection budgets.

Vitali introduced the bill previously and it has been buried inside the House Rules Committee (chairman, John Perzel, R-Philadelphia; local member, Mike Veon, D-Beaver) where it has little chance of escape.

"Leadership, both on the Democratic and Republican side in the House like using caucus money. It lets them throw tax money into building name recognition of members without dipping into their campaign funds," Vitali explained.

Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, knows what those spots are like. Incumbent Democrat Sara Steelman, who went a decade without doing such broadcast spots, suddenly erupted on her district's airwaves promoting state programs as if she had invented them, in the months leading up to election. Reed defeated her, anyway.

Reed says he will sign Vitali's petition to free up the bill.

Vitali needs 25 signatures of House members to force the bill out of committee and onto the House floor where members can be seen voting yes or no on whether this abuse should continue.

At present, Vitali has nine signatures. He is hoping at least two local members, Don Walko, D-North Side, and Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, will come on board. Whether others will do the same we can only hope.

But the problem is that, once they get there, the people put in charge of our money turn into a flock of gulls, all squawking "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

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