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Idea for state dinosaur digs up guffaws

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- To go with the official state insect, vegetable and slogan, among other "official" things named by the state Legislature, state Rep. Stephen Maitland now wants to create the official state dinosaur.

OK, you know what's coming. He knows it, too. Here you go:

No, it's not state Sen. Clarence Bell, the 87-year-old Delaware County Republican first elected to the state Legislature in 1955 and its most senior member.

No, it's not the state open records law, but it should be, said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania, referring to the statute crafted when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and manual typewriters were state of the art, and left untouched since.

"I'd nominate the state campaign finance law, but it never made it onto the evolutionary charts," Kauffman quipped.

Maitland, R-Gettysburg, said he "fully expects" mockery of his bill, now being written for introduction next month to name one of the earliest dinosaurs, Atreipus, the official state dinosaur. He expects scorn. Let's not disappoint.

"This weird legislative diversion doesn't surprise me," said state House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg. "This legislative session, the GOP legislative agenda has been marked by torpor, insipidity and languor."

In other words, the Republicans who control the House haven't been doing anything important anyway, so this bill isn't a shocker.

For his part, DeWeese said, he will "race to the rostrum" to nominate House Speaker Matthew Ryan, R-Delaware, as the official state dinosaur if the bill indeed is introduced. DeWeese is joking, kind of, when he calls Ryan a "paleolithic politician par excellence."

More derision, you say? Well, sure, we can do that.

"Yeah, I've had a lot of calls on this issue," said state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side. "Basically, the commonwealth is at peace with the world so we can be concerned about the official state dinosaur. Tobacco settlement? We ever going to do anything about that? Prescription drugs? Personally, I think City Court is the official state dinosaur."

Atreipus milfordensis was roughly 6 feet tall and had three toes, birdlike hips and lived roughly 210 million years ago in the Triassic Period. The dinosaur was named after a town in New Jersey where its footprints were discovered. Bones from the beast have never been found anywhere, much less in Pennsylvania, but fossilized footprints have been found in Maitland's legislative district.

"This animal is known only by its footprints," said Mary Dawson, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Art. "It probably walked on its hind feet. But the hands probably weren't big enough to accept campaign contributions."

Zing!

Creating official state symbols is a longtime practice of the Legislature, which inevitably is mocked for it. Lawmakers bring it on themselves.

For four years now, they have seriously and hotly debated naming the official state dance. Some want the polka. Others want the square dance. Last year, House members resolved the issue by naming the polka the official state dance and the square dance the official state folk dance.

The Senate ignored that and the bill never become law. Expect it to come back again this year.

In 1997, state Sen. Robert J. Thompson, R-Chester, introduced a bill that would make the chocolate chip cookie the official state cookie. But the bill was sent to the state government committee, whose chairman, Charles D. Lemmond Jr., R-Luzerne, doesn't like chocolate. It gives him migraines.

Lemmond wants the state cookie to be oatmeal-raisin. The debate continues.

A decade ago, hoots of derision wafted over the Capitol when lawmakers named the official state vegetable. It isn't even a vegetable. It's a fungus -- the mushroom.

Then there is the official state slogan "You've Got a Friend In Pennsylvania." It is grammatically incorrect.

Agreements over the years have been forged to name the official state animal (white-tailed deer), state game bird (ruffed grouse), state insect (firefly), state dog (Great Dane), state fish (brook trout), state flower (mountain laurel) and the state tree (hemlock). Don't ask about the official state fossil. You don't want to know.

A bill now in a House committee, introduced by state Rep. Tom Scrimenti, D-Erie, would name the eastern box turtle the official state reptile.

For his part, Maitland said, naming one more official state symbol is harmless and might even make some money through the sales of T-shirts and coffee mugs. Besides, the neighboring states of Maryland and New Jersey, as well as eight other states, have named official state dinosaurs.

He decided to write his bill after first-graders at St. Francis Xavier school in Gettysburg saw an exhibition of dinosaurs and sent Maitland a letter asking that an official state dinosaur be named.

"I would have to say up until now that I have been less than enthusiastic about other members' proposals" naming official state symbols, he said. "I'm looking at it a little differently now. I think this is a good tool for kids to learn."



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