What’s the matter with Pennsylvania Republicans?

Republican candidates for federal and state office across the country are espousing low taxes, limited government and free-market principles as they seek to recapture the U.S. House of Representatives, flip more than a dozen state legislative chambers, and gain control of the majority of the nation’s governors’ mansions. Yet in the Pennsylvania Senate, the only state legislative chamber controlled by the GOP in the northeast, the Republican majority is busy mucking up the message that their partisan counterparts across the country are trying to send to voters heading into the home stretch of this crucial campaign season.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is one of the few state legislatures still in session at this point in the year. Lawmakers returned to the state capitol in Harrisburg this past week to pass a new tax on natural gas companies, the state’s most promising industry when it comes to job creation.

The state budget agreement approved this summer, with the backing of Senate Republican Leadership, was based on an agreement that lawmakers would pass a severance tax on natural gas extraction by October 1; this despite the fact that energy companies doing business in the Keystone state already face the second highest state corporate income tax in the nation and the 11th highest overall state and local tax burden. Furthermore the Pennsylvania natural gas industry is already at a competitive disadvantage compared to other natural gas producing states, with per well drilling costs exceeding most other states by $1 million according to Katrina Currie, research associate for the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation.

With Republicans holding a 30-20 majority in the state Senate, Republican votes will be needed to pass a severance tax and if a deal is struck, Senate President Joe Scarnati (R-25), Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9), and the rest of leadership will be voting for it.

In light of this, it’s hard to see how Pennsylvania Republicans run against the unsustainable tax-and-spend agenda that has been the hallmark of both the Rendell administration and Democratic-controlled Washington.

It gets worse.

Not only are Pennsylvania Republicans considering voting for higher energy taxes just prior to the election, next week Sens. Pileggi and Scarnati will attempt to bring to the floor a bill, HB 2246, that would be a gift to trial lawyers and disastrous for commonwealth taxpayers and businesses.

This legislation would allow trial lawyers to ask juries for specific (read: astronomical) monetary sums in all automobile accident lawsuits. If approved, the result will be higher automobile insurance premiums for Pennsylvanians.

It gets even worse.

It is widely believed that the courts, for purposes of uniformity, would apply this law to all tort cases, meaning higher premiums for every form of insurance — health, homeowner’s, life, etc.

As such, a coalition of businesses, hospitals, and insurers sent a letter to state senators notifying them that the excessive damage awards that HB 2246 would result in will lead to “higher consumer prices and decreased availability of goods.”

“It’s an assault on the Pennsylvania civil justice system and we’re going to do everything we can to help the bill get defeated,” said Joe Stern, executive director of the Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania.