What’s the matter with Pennsylvania Republicans?

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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.

Trial lawyers are a key constituency and funding source of the Democratic Party and the Takings Coalition; so why would Republicans do their bidding? Easy, the trial bar has given Scarnati and Pileggi tens of thousands of dollars each in campaign donations, with each receiving more than $50,000 from trial lawyers since 2009. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania taxpayers, it’s payback time.

This legislation, which is expected to come up for a vote on the Senate floor by Wednesday, has stoked a lobbying frenzy at the Pennsylvania capitol. According to sources in Harrisburg, trial lawyers are currently making the rounds in Harrisburg and cutting checks to senators who are on the fence. While this blatant quid pro quo won’t sit well with voters, you can’t blame the trial bar; it was very effective with Scarnati and Pileggi after all.

Not all Pennsylvania Senate Republicans have gone off the reservation, but unfortunately for those that oppose job-killing energy taxes and trial lawyer handouts, the Chicago-style actions of Senate Republican Leadership stand to poison the well for all Republican candidates this fall.

With Republicans behaving like this, who needs Democrats? If there is no contrast between the parties, especially on the issue of taxes, don’t be surprised if the impending Republican wave skips Pennsylvania this November.

Patrick Gleason is director of state affairs at Americans for Tax Reform.

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