The phantom of the legislature

Columnist : Albert Paschall

    In Harrisburg the truth isn’t always what you see. Buried deep down in the bowels of the dusty and dank archives way below the capitol dome he lurks. The tale holds that maybe he’s a former House member, burned sometime in the distant past by fiery voters who didn’t understand his truly good intentions. Now he suffers silently, working his mischief secretly, when no one is watching into the lyrics of the aria of policy played out on the state capital stage. One rarely sees his deft hand, as the season ticket holders for Harrisburg’s daily matinees are beneath his talents. Only every two years when the general assembly convenes in the darkness of night to play out its bi-annual “sunset session” the phantom of the legislature returns.

     Unlike its boring daytime counter part the Sunset Session every two years is the theatre of high operatic drama in the State House. This grand finale of the legislative cycle is mandated by the state constitution and it requires that the general assembly bring the curtain down on two years of the peoples’ business in just three days.

     This year’s opening act featured a strange duet. Republican Governor Tom Ridge and the Democratic Mayor of Philadelphia Ed Rendell came straight from their standing ovation convention performance before the Republican National Committee. Their carefully rehearsed overture was to be the “Sonata of the Stadiums.” A $350 million production that would fund new sports stadiums for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

     It’s not a popular tune in most of the 44,000 square miles of the state between Lake Erie and the Delaware River. Nevertheless Ridge decided it would be the opening number of sunset session ’98 and in fact if he hadn’t brought the tin ear of Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy into the act it just might have played out well.

     Murphy, a former member of the general assembly, should have known better than to leave himself vulnerable to the phantom’s mischief. It should have been obvious that when the sunset session opens there’s no longer two choirs of Republicans and Democrats harmonizing the party line. In this act you’ve got 253 soloists looking to get center stage on whatever money is left. When there’s a $600 million surplus the babble can turn into a deafening roar.

     In that chaos is when the phantom goes to work. In the past his greatest hits have included legislative pay raises and obscure judicial appointments, new regulations and special tax breaks, but this year’s composition is undoubtedly his masterpiece. In the wee hours of the morning, during a routine intermission, he magically slipped a sour note into a bill that would build Pittsburgh’s stadiums and leave the rest of the state with none, and it passed the House unanimously.

     If Murphy hadn’t called a press conference to tell the world about how the phantom had brought music to his ears its unlikely this little trick would have been noticed until he called Harrisburg for the down payment on the Pirates new home. Savaging reviews rained in from all over the state. Million of thumbs went down on this shabby performance causing Steelers owner Art Rooney to ask the Governor to use his veto to shut the show down. An angry Ridge and embarrassed House Speaker Matt Ryan quickly agreed that it was time to turn out the House lights.

     In the wake of this disastrous performance it remains to be seen whether or not script changes can be crafted in the New Year to save the stadiums. There’s no doubt that Ridge must write himself into the starring role. Unless he takes center stage there’s no hope. Mid-state legislators captivated by the AMP crisis are now free to sing their own legislative song in the wake of the Tyco merger while Rendell will be busy trying to keep all the members of the Philadelphia House delegation playing from the same song sheet.

     The phantom of the legislature has struck again and taken the stadium-funding bill back with him into the bowels of the state capitol. There will be some long days before it sees the light of day again. But who is the phantom of the legislature? We may never know. But whoever he is, wherever he lurks, he didn’t want those stadiums funded and his mischief has probably made sure it won’t happen any time soon. Proving again that the truth isn’t always what you see.