Scalia’s death puts Toomey in an impossible position

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Plus: more juvenile budget behavior and the Kane show that will never end

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusualAfter this past week of watching Pennsylvania politics, I almost wish I was back on the serious pain meds I took after my recent back surgery — because it wasn’t exactly a week that covered the commonwealth with glory and it hurt a bit to watch it all.

From the juvenile tussle over the state budget — the current budget year still has no complete budget and both sides appear ready to continue the ridiculous fight over what will now be two budgets, instead of getting to work for the people of the state — to the unending Kathleen Kane saga to the death of a U.S. Supreme Court justice putting a local U.S. Senator in a difficult place, there seems to be a plethora of Pennsylvania political subjects to dissect.

First, the headline news: with the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R) faces a nearly impossible situation.

While facing a challenging reelection in a state with nearly a million more registered Democrats in a presidential election year (the one year Democrats turn out well), Toomey must decide whether or not to actively block any nomination to the Supreme Court from President Barrack Obama — and thus reenforce an obstructionist Republican stereotype, helping the likely Democratic nominee, Joe Sestak  — or will he vote for a moderate nominee and earn additional wrath from the extreme right as being a “squish” or “RINO.”

Hard as it might be for someone to imagine who actually lives on Earth, but there are those who claim Toomey is not really a true conservative — I got a missive from the always entertaining Bob Guzzardi (well, entertaining in a Hunter S. Thompson on acid kind of way) who when not claiming that Chester County Republican Committee Chair Val DiGiorgio and allies basically are basically corporate-controlled Democrats piles on Toomey for his supposed liberalism. Understand that Toomey — admittedly, a very bright and capable man with a good grasp on policy — is about as liberal as Bernie Sanders is conservative.

So to be to the right of Toomey is to be way out there. Almost to state Sen. Scott Wagner in that no-man’s, X-Files land of paranoia and mental delusion. And yet, Toomey is under attack from the right and figures to be in the crosshairs as the Supreme Court drama drags on through the year.

Republicans have a real message struggle with this one: since President Ronald Reagan managed to get Anthony Kennedy confirmed during an election year as a lame duck in 1988, it’s going to force U.S. Senate Republicans to tie themselves in knots on essentially preempting President Obama’s right to be, well, president.

And as Toomey is going to need a bundle of independent and Democratic votes to get reelected, it puts him, as well as colleagues Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio in a bind. All face reelection in blue or purple states, which means they have to think twice before pandering to the GOP base.

About the only break for Toomey is how inept the state Democratic Party has been with the U.S. Senate race. By inserting the wildly in-over-her-head Katie McGinty into the race, the state Democratic Party has done the nearly impossible: made Joe Sestak into a sympathetic figure. Even though at various times, Sestak and his campaign team have ruffled multiple feathers and generally annoyed rank-and-file party types, pushing McGinty into the race as the “official party establishment” candidate has caused many to rally around the former Navy Admiral, who lost a narrow race to Toomey in 2010.

So while a Toomey who was making moves to appeal to the middle stood a good chance on winning against a Democrat that was the product of a fractious election process, he stands far less chance of winning as an extremist, obstructionist if he chooses to go that way. One the other hand, angry Republicans might not vote for him, costing him crucial votes, should he be a Senate voice of moderation and call for an up and down vote on any Obama court nominee.

For Toomey, there’s no winning strategy — just figuring out what the least awful is. Good luck with that.

Update: Late Monday, Toomey did offer an official take and appears to support blocking any Obama court nominee.

“It has been less than 72 hours since Justice Scalia’s passing,” Toomey said in a statement. “There has already been too much politicking around the issue of his replacement. This decision should not be rushed, and it should not be made amid the clamoring of a presidential election season. We should honor Justice Scalia’s legacy, and we should put off a decision on his replacement until the newly-elected president can make his or her choice.”

* * *

Last Tuesday was the kind of day that, as a citizen of Pennsylvania, kind of just made you cringe.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s hectoring, lecturing budget address — while chock full of valid points about the mess that the state’s finances are in — completely missed the point with tone and worse, gave the legislators who created this mess more justification than ever for digging their heels in.

And while there were more histrionic responses from GOP legislative leaders, at least Chester County’s legislative delegation seemed to have a more thoughtful take, mostly expressing disappointment in Wolf’s manner rather than the substance of his comments.

“I believe the governor missed a key opportunity for a fresh start with the Legislature,” State Rep. Becky Corbin (R-155) said in statement last week.  “After a contentious year, I was hoping he would reach across the aisle in an effort to work with lawmakers on issues most important to Pennsylvanians.  Instead, the governor appeared more interested in assigning blame for last year’s budget impasse than seeking a constructive path forward, and that’s disappointing.”

But House Majority Leader Dave Reed, who tried to broker a budget compromise last year, appears to have given into budget rage:

“It is just not reality to think there is support for 15 new tax increases, including a retroactive increase in the Personal Income Tax, and just so he can spend more,” Reed said in a statement, last week. 

“Missing from the governor’s proposal is property tax reform, public pension reform, liquor privatization and spending accountability.

“What was even more loudly missing, though, is how the governor proposes to finish the last 13 percent of the current budget after he vetoed $6.3 billion. Before anyone asks for more taxes and more spending, shouldn’t we close out this year? Shouldn’t we finalize this year’s budget, then we can work together on the priorities for next year?

“We need to finish this year in a responsible way that meets the core functions of government and that taxpayers can actually afford.”

Like, uh, the compromise deal that Reed worked out with Wolf and state Senate leaders in December and then found out his house colleagues wouldn’t support — so they basically packed up and left? Yeah, that one.

The awful truth is, and after more than a decade of playing politics rather than serving the people, the budget process is entirely broken — and there’s no clean way out.

Despite protestations to the obverse, Pennsylvania has a structural budget deficit of about $2 billion a year. Some of this could be cut by eliminating corporate subsidies and ending tax breaks for various groups who seem to be more gifted at campaign contributions than contributing to society in general.

Wolf did manage to make that point, Tuesday:

“The problem is not that Republicans in the General Assembly and I don’t see eye-to-eye,” Wolf said in his address. “After all, Pennsylvanians are used to seeing political leaders disagree, even strongly. And in the 2014 election, they chose divided government: a Democratic Governor, a Republican legislature. I doubt anyone was surprised when it turned out that we had different priorities.

No, this crisis is not about politics at all.

This is about math.

Pennsylvania now faces a $2 billion budget deficit.

That’s not a Democratic fact or a Republican fact. It’s just a fact.”

And yes, there are some things around the edges of the state budget that could be cut — but keep in mind that some 70 percent of the budget goes toward welfare and corrections. So, we can cut welfare and turn felons loose, or accept that the budget doesn’t have a ton of wiggle room without causing lots of pain for lots of people.

So what would I do were I Wolf?

Give the Republicans exactly what they want. Slash the beejesus out of the budget. Cut teachers, cut services, open up the prisons and wait for ensuing howl from the public. With generations of GOP posturing on taxes and budgets, no one has ever given them what they claim to want (but don’t really, because they know the firestorm it would touch off).

So, give it to them. Let the legislators of Pennsylvania learn the lessons that those in Kansas and Wisconsin and other locales have learned the hard way — by slashing budgets and then finding themselves voted out of office.

Think of it as chemotherapy for the cancer of self-absorbed political stupidity. It may be rugged to endure, but could finally bring some hope down the road.

* * *

The State Senate vote on whether or not to remove Attorney General Kathleen Kane was even more embarrassing the budget mess. The vote fell four short of removing Kane from office via a somewhat antiquated process that hasn’t been attempted for a century (and failed then, too).

And yes, we get that Kane is innocent until proven guilty.

But, as being the state’s top law enforcement officer and the defendant in a criminal case (not to mention having her license suspended), isn’t that a bit a conflict of interest? Doesn’t her status taint every single charge brought by her office?

It looks like it from here. Why she hasn’t had the common sense to resign, I don’t know. I don’t buy the whole conspiracy theory she and her supporters keep putting out there (nor did the grand jury) and it seems like there were pretty strong reasons for the indictments and law license suspension handed down against her.

Kane should resign. She should have done so months ago, but it’s likely she won’t. And she’ll keep running for reelection.

If Democrats have any common sense, they’ll boot her in the primary — with two solid alternatives, Stephen Zappala and Josh Shapiro on the ballot.

If not, the Pennsylvania Tourism Board can borrow the old Virigina motto, with a minor tweak: “Pennsylvania is for suckers.”

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