House GOP conservatives flex political muscle
By MARK SCOLFORO
HARRISBURG – Unlike the Timber Caucus or the Italian-American Caucus, the more conservative Republican members of the Pennsylvania House aren’t formally organized, but they have something better: Raw numbers and political power.
Their ranks constitute a controlling portion of the House Republicans’ 111-seat majority, giving them enough leverage to put the brakes on a transportation and transit funding initiative this summer even though it was supported by their natural ally, Gov. Tom Corbett.
Pennsylvania may be a swing state, with one U.S. senator from each party and a recent history of voting for President Barack Obama twice and electing Democrats as attorney general and auditor general, but the conservative majority of the House GOP caucus has proven that it can win elections and get results in the state Capitol.
It’s been three years since House Republicans retook the majority in the tea party wave that also ushered into office fellow Republican Corbett. Since then, there have been three on-time state budgets, no new broad-based state taxes and little growth in the state budget.
The GOP conservatives have been key players in passage of Marcellus Shale regulations and an impact fee far friendlier to the industry than others had supported, a voter identification requirement that’s being challenged in state court, the castle doctrine self-defense law and tougher regulations for abortion clinics.
They have been particularly effective in preventing things they oppose, including post-Newtown gun restrictions and expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. The question now is whether they have found a winning formula for successful governance or have sown the seeds of downfall.
Their hostility to new taxes doomed the transportation bill, but it also meant the failure of liquor system privatization, a priority of the governor’s that they strongly support. In doing so, they embarrassed Corbett in the run-up to next year’s re-election campaign.
“There are a multitude of other smaller things that we’ve stopped, usually within the context of informal discussions,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, a lawyer and author of the book “They’ve Crossed the Line: A Patriot’s Guide to Religious Freedom.”
Bloom recently sought support for a bill that would direct public school administrators to help teachers “present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” and keep them from stopping teachers “from helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”
As a former Messiah College instructor and evangelical Christian, Bloom considers himself a creationist, and some have seen his proposal as a backdoor way to allow creationism to be taught in public schools. Other members of the House GOP conservative wing have organized gun rights rallies, spoken out against gay marriage and sponsored “year of the Bible” and “national fast day” resolutions.
Those sorts of things play well to their base but may not be helpful to Corbett as he courts moderate Democrats and independents next year.
Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, said Corbett’s three-part agenda, which also includes public pension system changes, is far from dead.
“I don’t see these things as setbacks,” Saccone said. “I see them as we make a lot of first downs, and there’s still a way to go on a lot of those issues. We’re moving the ball forward, month by month.”
Corbett beat a conservative House member, former Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-Berks, in the 2010 primary, and he came out of that race well-positioned to ride the tea party wave to victory. Now his re-election will depend to some degree on whether those members can help him demonstrate effectiveness without alienating suburbanites and Reagan Democrats.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, a 15-year House member and proud archconservative, said Corbett’s allies may have done him a favor by turning against a transportation package expected to raise gasoline prices by a quarter or more.
That proposal, along with the Marcellus Shale levy, the delay in the phase-out of a business tax program and trickle-down tax increases by cash-strapped school districts have given ammunition to Corbett’s opponents, who argue he has violated his often-stated categorical opposition to new taxes.
Some Democrats see the House Republican caucus as having essentially been captured by a conservative majority faction that prevents the sorts of bipartisan compromises that were more common under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, when the two parties shared power.
Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said Democrats wanted greater say in the details of the transportation bill if it were going to be enacted with a majority of their votes. Instead, they felt Republicans gave them a take-it-or-leave it proposal, another frustration as they try to deal across the aisle.
“I believe most of them campaigned on the fact that government does not work, and they’re out to prove it,” Sturla said. “They are not a part of the government, in their minds.”
Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.