Freshman lawmakers bring new ideas to Pennsylvania's old problems



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Twenty-eight are Republicans, five are Democrats. Six are women. And once they're sworn in next month, all of them will get a vote in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

The newest class of freshmen lawmakers, including three House members who made it to the Senate, have not had much opportunity to bask in their recent victories as they spent time picking caucus leaders, setting up offices and navigating their way around the Capitol. And, oh yeah, figuring out what to do about that enormous state budget deficit.

They bring new blood and tend toward idealism, but can also fall back on shopworn campaign clichés.

"I think you get up to speed on the issues as quickly as you can," said Tedd Nesbit, a Republican taking a Mercer County seat in the House. "And you try to rein in the costs of doing business in Pennsylvania. It's going to be a difficult task to get the priorities in line with the revenues we currently have."

Mike Driscoll said he got the sense during a get-to-know-each-other dinner for freshman at a Harrisburg hotel that most were eager to get things done.

"We're not naive coming in, we know there's a $2 billion budget deficit," said Driscoll, a Philadelphia Democrat elected to a House seat. "We're hoping for better revenues, the economy is getting a little better — we hope. But we also recognize we're in a hole."

The crushing burden of the state's public-sector pension plans, an issue that has haunted policymakers for more than a decade, is at the top of many of their minds. Some said they would support moving new hires into a 401(k)-type program, or a hybrid of that and the existing pension, but those sorts of changes won't do much to address the billions in new costs the plans will require in the coming years.

"As far as finding the new revenue, I confess, it's going to be a very tough path," said Republican Brett Miller, a public school guidance counselor from Lancaster County. "Just to take more and more money out of the taxpayers is not the answer."

Judy Ward, a nurse from Blair County, said liquor privatization could be part of the solution.

"I mean, it's a one-time fix but it could help," said Ward, a Republican.

Many of the new members said they will be watching the new governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, to see what kind of leadership he offers amid strong Republican majorities in both chambers (30-20 in the Senate, 119-84 in the House).

"I think at the end of the day, Gov. Wolf is going to have the issues he likes and the issues he needs," said Peter Schweyer, a Lehigh County Democrat and former legislative aide.

Wolf backs an extraction tax on natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation, a debate that could end up bringing changes to the existing impact fee. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican who ousted Sen. Tim Solobay in Washington County, said she won't let that money disappear without a fight.

"That is vital, absolutely critical to my district, especially," Bartolotta said. "If we lose the impact fee we'll never see it again."

Cris Dush, a Republican elected to succeed retiring House Speaker Sam Smith in Jefferson County, said he wants to improve the business climate and make the state's electrical supply more reliable by creating Pennsylvania's own grid system. He also wants to bolster the Legislature's oversight role by granting it subpoena power.

"Right now we have members of the administration and other branches of the government that have no accountability, when they can turn around and say, 'Well, I'm just not going to show up,'" said Dush, a retired prison guard.

The plight of the very poor in her Philadelphia House district is at the top of Democratic representative-elect Leslie Acosta's mind, including better schools and economic development.

"The power structure right now is a difficult environment coming in, bottom line," Acosta said. "There's going to have to be some negotiation, some flexibility in order to get an agenda forward."

Pat Stefano, a Republican who flipped an open seat southeast of Pittsburgh, said lower business taxes and a better business climate are among his priorities, but he's also determined to find common ground with Democrats.

"Right now I'm in a learning phase," Stefano said. "I'm going to pick up the philosophy (from) the campaign: God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion."


Mark Scolforo covers the Legislature for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at mscolforo@ap.org, or follow him on Twitter: @houseofbuddy.

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