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State of Inertia

Preparing for a winter of discontent

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Harrisburg is to politics what the Pirates are to baseball: No matter who's in charge, the performance never seems to change. And often, the only way for an onlooker to stay sane is to mutter, "There's always next year."

Did you hope Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislature would privatize state liquor stores? Looking unlikely, but … there's always next year. 

Did you think Harrisburg might establish a reliable transportation-funding mechanism, so there'd be money to repair roads and replace buses? Forget it. But hey, there's always next year.

In October, for example, Corbett told reporters that when it came to transportation funding, "I don't have a deadline in my mind of this year." Meanwhile, bridges crumble, and the Port Authority gears up for even more service cuts. 

As for privatizing liquor stores? Last week, the Tribune-Review quoted Corbett saying that that initiative probably "goes into next year." With only a handful of days left on the 2011 legislative calendar, Corbett said he had other priorities: passing a school voucher bill, levying a fee on natural-gas drilling … and redrawing the boundaries for Congressional districts. You can guess which of those initiatives has top priority.

Even conservatives sound frustrated. That school voucher bill, which would provide tax dollars to pay for children to attend private school? It too may have to wait until 2012. "Among the foot soldiers, there is a pervading sense … that what so many hoped would be a triumphant fall campaign is destined to fall short," the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported recently.

And it's widely believed that hot-button bills are even less likely to pass in 2012, an election year. As one conservative groused to the Patriot-News, "Next year's going to be all about naming bridges."

Actually, that's one area where Republicans are running ahead of schedule. Corbett has signed more than 20 bills renaming roads, bridges and other features. His predecessor, Ed Rendell, signed only five such bills in his first year in office.

Still, it hasn't exactly been a do-nothing year: Corbett has signed 106 measures into law, with most of December still to go. In Rendell's first year, when the legislature was in the hands of the GOP, only 67 laws were enacted. 

Yet while Republicans control every branch of government, so far, their highest-octane accomplishment has been a law establishing the "Castle Doctrine," which expands your God-given right to gun down intruders in your home. Other highlights include a ban on texting while driving, and tighter rules on teen motorists. Nice bills, if not exactly profiles in courage.

But if you're one of those conservatives who believe government should do as little as possible, you ought to be pretty happy with Harrisburg these days. And while Corbett may be in the back pocket of gas-drillers and other corporate interests, at least he's not a dick about it. After being elected, Corbett said he'd emulate Chris Christie, New Jersey's bombastic governor. But he's been more like the Antichristie: He's so genteel as to be almost invisible, and unlike Republican governors elsewhere, he hasn't gone out of his way to antagonize unions.

Of course, this is Harrisburg, home of the late-night pay raise: Republicans could advance a whole raft of reactionary legislation on New Year's Eve. In which case, I'll sound pretty stupid. (Though perhaps not as stupid as another Pittsburgh newspaper, whose editorial board endorsed Corbett solely because of his pledge to privatize state stores.)

But even school vouchers aren't a gimme for Republicans: Most rural counties, where the GOP holds sway, don't even have private schools. And if conservatives end up feeling betrayed, I might almost feel some sympathy. We've all been there, haven't we?

Sometimes, in fact, I think movements like Occupy Pittsburgh are a form of group therapy. They offer healing to those who felt betrayed by a Democratic president and Congress that squandered their best chance to advance core liberal causes, like Wall Street reform and the environment. The Occupiers hunker down together, afraid to espouse specific policies or parties -- lest their trust be abused again.

If that's true, Occupiers might want to save some tent space for disheartened conservatives next year.

Actually, better save room for Pirates fans, too.

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