Five years ago when the Erie-elite invaded Harrisburg they were coming from a place that “most people never heard of and nobody ever went to.” So the season ticket holders in the state capital weren’t prepared for either the earnest charm or the political fire they were dancing around. He was destined to be defined by the elite of the eternally elected in Harrisburg as an empty suit. The obscure Congressman who hadn’t done much other than look good on TV. By their standards the new guy was too shallow to take on the big issues and was doomed to be a caretaker. Many of the bureaucrats figured they would ignore him because he didn’t understand his way around their city.
What they didn’t understand is that Tom Ridge has an extraordinary gift, reserved for few mortals. While most of us need only three crude words to tell somebody to take a trip to Satan’s den, Ridge needs a hundred to deliver that hot invitation. The gift he has, is that when he invites you, you don’t know he did it, you gladly take the trip and thank him for extending the invitation.
The business brimstone was flying hot in the state when Ridge took office. From ‘89 to ‘94 more than 90,000 jobs left Pennsylvania. The jobs were sent packing to warmer business climates by eight years of Democratic domination of the House. The Democrats bought into the temptation to enact every new weird workplace and environmental regulation with all the devilish details that the bureaucracies could divine. Then when the money ran out they decided that the best way to pay for their experimental playground was to balance the books was on the backs of business owners. Even after 1 in 8 Pennsylvanians had either lost or were forced to take lower paying jobs and 8% were unemployed they still didn’t understand that runaway workers compensation costs with strangling environmental regulations that robbed the state’s reserves were forcing the Commonwealth’s employers into making final judgments on the state’s viability.
Breaking the chains of the status quo Ridge advanced the outrageous notion that we could keep employers happy and not be turned into a total toxic waste dump and he proceeded to dismantle virtually every one of the Democrats’ job burning strategies. Offset in his early days by a shipyard deal gone south in Philadelphia, he learned quickly that the only way out was to win and damn the consequences.
Five years later in his budget address last Tuesday afternoon he delivered the consequences. With the state budget surplus promising to hit $700 million again this year Ridge delivered tax cuts, tax rebates and, like it or not, an increase in spending that can’t help but satisfy almost every special interest group out there. There’s $243 million more for education, $853 million more for mental health, $135 million more for environmentalists and even $10 million to fight West Nile disease mosquitoes and after all of that there is still $1.1 billion in reserve funds. All of it wrapped in a $19 billion package that will deliver a check for a $100 rebate to every homeowner in Pennsylvania. Now that all is said and done it wasn’t a budget address it was Ridge’s Revenge and in all of the capital the entrenched and the established have no political choice but to accept it.
As Democrats gathered next to a picture of Ridge chanting the slogan: “the Democrats made me do it” Democratic power broker Senator Vincent Fumo whined about the budget package. “We’re for meaningful tax reform,” he said, “Ridge is for election year gimmicks”
Must be that they didn’t really get the Governor’s message because it took him so long to deliver it. With Microsoft’s president broadcasting live right into the Pennsylvania House and the Governor outlining the details of sending every homeowner a check for $100 that will be ready, coincidentally, in this election year in late October, it was a long day. Ridge took more than an hour to use his gift to tell the doubters, the entrenched, the bureaucrats and especially the Democrats to take a trip to someplace really warm and bring their pitchforks. They’ll accept his invitation and thank him for it. They’ll pass that budget with virtually no changes.
To the established with their often hidden agendas in Harrisburg, the guy from Erie has turned out to be the devil himself and last Tuesday he had his richly deserved revenge. Someday they’ll figure out that if they have a prayer of topping his agenda they’ll have to find their way around his city.