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Plan B signing is a real circus

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HARRISBURG - It was this kind of day for Tom Ridge, a governor-turned-ringmaster-and-carnival-barker for the signing of a bill that saves the Pirates and anchors the futures of the Steelers, Eagles and Phillies.

He was kissed on the feet by the Phillie Phanatic and serenaded by a mummers band. He danced with a Democratic Philadelphia senator along with a group of school kids, was given the shirt off the back of Phillies' third baseman Scott Rolen and shared the Capitol rotunda with a menagerie that included a boa constrictor named Roxanne, a monitor lizard named Kopa and a prickly porcupine named Needles. And, oh yes, he received the pen for the ceremonial signing from a great horned owl named Maya, compliments of the Philadelphia Zoo.

Talk about the circus coming to the circus.

And in the only indication of how bruising this political fight was, how unpopular it was with some taxpayers, one protester played the role of the skunk at the garden party. He stood mute amid the celebration, hoisting a sign that read: "Gov, There Is No Free Lunch, Stop Corporate Welfare Now!"

While it wasn't often that the governor's office used the word "festivities" and "stadium bill" in the same sentence during months of contentious debate, Ridge clearly celebrated the moment yesterday at a bill-signing that was part street fair, part sideshow, part labor rally and part political party.

The tone was set when Ridge mugged for the TV cameras flanked by the Pirate Parrot and his counterpart, Phanatic. "Which one's the governor?" asked Ridge, the state's ham-in-chief.

With senators and representatives perched on the Capitol steps between Ridge and members of the Fralinger String Band - straight from South Philadelphia - with Pirates Chief Executive Officer Kevin McClatchy and Steelers Vice President Art Rooney II sharing space with labor leaders and museum bigwigs, Ridge scrawled into law a measure that raises the state debt ceiling to finance the state share of $320 million for four new stadiums and $330 million for statewide projects such as zoos, cultural centers and museums. (The numbers represent only the sticker price and do not include interest on the bonds.)

"This is an extraordinary investment in the future of this state," Ridge said during a speech. "We want to create a state where nobody wants to leave and everybody wants to get to. ... And we did it the Pennsylvania way - without raising taxes."

He said the four Pennsylvania franchises have "always been a unifying force in our communities," and to prove it, Ridge told the story of how his Czechoslovakian grandmother cheered Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the 1960 World Series.

"You'd have thought she hit the home run," said Ridge, who grew up in Munhall.

Behind him, applause came from former Steeler Dwight White of the famed Steel Curtain, former wide receiver Harold Carmichael of the Eagles, a group of labor leaders and Republican matriarch and long-time Ridge ally Elsie Hillman, all of whom gathered in the same general area of a marble stairway modeled after the Paris Opera House.

Ridge also kicked up his heels with state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, and a group from the Point Breeze Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

A party that lasted nearly two hours was heavy into the sports theme, a decided contrast to most days when the rotunda is the gathering spot of lawmakers, lobbyists and tourists who wander in to peer at the dome patterned after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

"If this were the NFL, they'd be flagged for excessive celebration," sniffed one legislative aide who stayed deep in the background while recalling the bitter fight the stadium bill generated until it was approved last week. "They're signing a stadium bill in the rotunda and passing a gambling bill in the House. This place makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like model cities."

After a duet of school girls sang the National Anthem, emcee Robert Jubilerer, also the Senate president pro tempore from Altoona, couldn't resist the temptation to say "Play ball!"

Jubilerer introduced Ridge as the "quarterback of Pennsylvania's championship team." When Jubilerer brought on McClatchy for some brief comments, the senator said, "We will be rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates, not the Northern Virginia Pirates."

Of all the franchises to get money, nobody was more grateful than the Pirates, whose 113-year existence was in grave peril without the state share for a new ballpark.

"Our future was in jeopardy," said McClatchy, who predicted that the stadiums and an expanded convention center would serve as a catalyst for a renaissance in Western Pennsylvania. "I didn't know if it would ever come about. The challenge we faced here was for our survival. It's a huge relief. There were many sleepless nights."

Nearby, Rooney signed autographs on copies of the legislation.

"It was a long road. It feels good," said Rooney.

"This is a very big hurdle. It's a happy day," said Bill Giles, the owner of the Phillies, who noted that the Pennsylvania teams need the revenue streams from new stadiums to stay competitive but who also noted that baseball needs a salary cap and revenue sharing to stop its insane economics. "It's very unfair when more than half the teams don't have a chance of being in the World Series."

Glenn Schaeffer, head of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, acknowledged that the bill had its skeptics but predicted it would be "one of the greatest jobs bills to come out of this Capitol in a long, long time."

All the participants then exited for a private reception at the governor's mansion. Before departing, Scott Rolen took off his No. 17 jersey, signed his autograph and gave it to a grateful Ridge.

Missing from the ceremony was Mayor Murphy, who was invited by Ridge's staff but stayed in Pittsburgh. Spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said Murphy's absence had nothing to do with ill will left over from the mayor's support of Plan B "stealth legislation" in November.

Murphy "hoped to go but he had scheduling conflicts," Kwiecinski said. The conflicts included private meetings and the grand opening of a Lawrenceville business.

Before the signing, staffers for the Carnegie Science Center mixed apple juice and dry ice in a plastic jug to create juice with bubbles. With each new batch, the lid would blow off the jug and the echo bounced off the walls of the huge chamber. (Do not try this at home.)

Their big bang was competing with the Fralinger String Band, whose members were wearing faux Phillies uniforms and belting out polkas and other mummers' staples. Representatives of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Altoona Railroaders Museum were on hand as well. While sports stadiums dominated the public debate over the legislation, the administration wanted to stress the "other" institutions that stand to benefit from raising the debt ceiling.

The lone protester in the crowd was Phil Beachey, a 57-year-old computer analyst from rural Perry County, about 45 minutes north of the Capitol.

"Who speaks for the taxpayers? They're the only ones not represented," Beachey said. "Look what happened out west. The people in 11 counties rejected this idea but nobody listened."

At one point, the Phillie Phanatic took on the bemused Beachey, mussing his hair and treating the protester as if he were in the friendly confines of Veterans Stadium.

Harrisburg Correspondent Peter J. Shelly contributed to this report.

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