Week in review: PA Senate leadership changes hands, budget deficit looms


By PA Independent Staff

Leadership elections dominated the discussion in Harrisburg this week. That’ll happen when a caucus ousts its own majority leader just a week after building upon an advantage.

No matter who’s in charge, though, they’ll have to deal with a projected $1.85 billion budget deficit, according to the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office, which released its five-year outlook this week.

Beyond that, one new lawmaker is also dealing with questions about his residency before the next General Assembly will have a chance to tackle such big legislative issues as the state budget.

NEW BOSS: State Senate Republicans elevated Sen. Jake Corman to majority leader, ousting Sen. Dominic Pileggi after he led the caucus for eight years.

Here’s a look back at those stories and more from this week:

Senate GOP ousts Pileggi

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, had been the Senate GOP majority leader for eight years, even earning the title of the most powerful person in Harrisburg, according to former Gov. Ed. Rendell.

Ultimately, Pileggi wasn’t powerful enough to hold onto his caucus, even after Republicans picked up three more seats in this month’s election to push their advantage to 30-20 over Democrats.

The changing caucus instead could have diluted Pileggi’s support, as the GOP elevated state Sen. Jake Corman to the majority leader post, where he will control the chamber’s legislative agenda. While the future will show for sure, many saw it as a sign the Senate GOP has shifted to a more conservative body.

Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said the leadership change sends a message Senate Republicans won’t just lie down after Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost to Democratic nominee Tom Wolf.

Wagner making waves in short time in Harrisburg

It’s impossible to know for sure, but perhaps Pileggi would still be in power had fresh-faced state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, never penned a letter in September expressing his frustration with the then-majority leader.

That was just one example of Wagner shaking up Harrisburg, where he’s quickly made a name for himself despite taking office just last spring. The conservative activist stormed to Harrisburg in a surprising write-in campaign, and he quickly became a Corbett campaign-trail ally – even helping the governor’s campaign track down an airplane when mechanical issues grounded Corbett.

“I’m a full-service senator and garbage man. I know where to get you just about anything,” said Wagner, who owns a waste management company. “I’m a pretty resourceful guy. I tell people in the waste business, if you need a donkey, we’ll get you a donkey.”

New lawmaker facing questions over residency requirements

One newly elected member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is facing an investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

A complaint originally filed with the Washington County district attorney alleges Jason Ortitay didn’t live at the address he declared on his voter registration form. The local district attorney has referred the case to the AG’s office, perhaps because of contributions to the candidate.

The complaint appears to center on a voter registration form Ortitay filled out Oct. 7, 2013. It’s illegal to “declare as residence a place or address which the individual knows is not the individual’s legal residence” and it’s alleged Ortitay did not, in fact, live at the address at the time.

J.J. Abbott, spokesman for the AG’s office, said the complaint is still under review and his office is not yet investigating. If the office decides it has jurisdiction and accepts the referral, an attorney would be assigned.

Allegheny County controller claims executive bilked taxpayers

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner has accused Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald of misusing taxpayer assets.

“My office has identified at least 100 instances in which Fitzgerald submitted documents to the county, claiming to be on official county business but was in fact was charging taxpayers for his personal and political use,” she said.

Fitzgerald has devised a blunt strategy to deal with the contentious miles: On Wednesday he turned over the keys and a check. He wrote a personal check for $42,737.52 to the county treasurer, having multiplied the total of every mile accrued since he took office by the current IRS reimbursement rate.

IFO warns of $1.85B deficit on horizon

Get ready for a “snapback.”

That’s the term Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office used to describe what will happen next year, when one-time fixes used to patch together the current budget contribute to a projected $1.85 billion shortfall.

That deficit could top $2.5 billion by 2019-20, according to the IFO’s five-year outlook, as pension costs will drive spending while revenue fails to keep pace.

Mark Ryan, deputy director of the IFO, said waiting for a return to normal growth won’t solve the problem. The issue can only be deferred — as the state did this year — for a time, he said.

“Just waiting them out won’t make them go away,” Ryan said. “It probably goes without saying, but this will require difficult policy choices from policymakers over the next several years as the implications of these budget deficits become apparent.”