Searching for sanity from high above

Gov. Corbett (right) and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley discuss the state budget, which Corbett has yet to sign, at a news conference Sunday. BRADLEY C. BOWER / ASSOCIATED PRESS

I'M SITTING in the front row of the visitors' gallery, high above the state House floor, searching for signs of intelligent life.

It's 9 p.m. Monday. It's the budget "debate." And no such signs are evident.

For starters, the "debate" is just windbaggery. Every lawmaker knows the budget passes as is no matter who says what.

Yet they stand in front of the chamber, one after another, fervently attacking or embracing a $29.1 billion spending plan to send to Gov. Corbett.

Democrats call it a sham. Republicans call it responsible. Both sides repeat old refrains that go on and on, which is why I'm the only press member present.

Capitol newsroom colleagues follow (or don't) from computers, TVs or in-house squawk boxes.

But it's maybe 15 degrees cooler here than in, for example, the Capitol newsroom because it's important to keep our lawmakers comfy.

I scan the elegant Italian Renaissance chamber with its murals, 14 circular stained-glass windows, marble walls and four chandeliers the size of Ford F-150 trucks.

An hour or so before the vote, only half the members are in their seats.

The "debate" is a low whine against ambient chatter and laughter as lawmakers gather in small groups in the back or in the aisles.

In the heart of Philly's delegation, Rep. Pam DeLissio passes around a large pan of what appears to be brownies.

I hope they're those kind of brownies.

Nearby, another member eats dinner. Another watches World Cup soccer on his laptop. Still another watches what looks like reruns of an old black-and-white TV show.

Given where he is, it's probably "The Twilight Zone."

Philly Rep. Mike O'Brien spins his chair away from orating members, stretches, leans back and, um, rests his eyes.

It's the most intelligent thing I spy.

About then an armed security guard approaches me and says where I'm sitting is reserved for press.

"That's why I'm sitting here," I offer.

He asks if I have credentials. Turns out I do. Then he asks, "How long have you been here?"

I want to say 27 years. But I assume he means how long have I been in the gallery. I say, "about an hour, why?"

He says "they" want to know. When I ask who "they" is, he says, "the floor."

Do, do, do, do . . . do, do, do, do. "The Twilight Zone" theme plays in my head.

When the budget vote comes, every Democrat votes "no." All but three Republicans - Philly's John Taylor, Bucks County's Gene DiGirolamo, Delco's Nick Miccarelli - vote "yes."

It passes 108-95 at 10:29 p.m., 91 minutes before the end of the fiscal year.

Then Corbett, who touts on-time budgets, announces he's not signing it.

Heads spin. So does speculation.

Is he holding out for pension reform that appears to be dead? And what about Philly's $2-per-pack cigarette tax to raise more for schools, without which Mayor Nutter says schools won't open in September?

Corbett linked the two but Philly lawmakers and Nutter condemn the linkage - which is another way of saying we don't have the skill or will to negotiate a deal.

Philly seeks authorization, not money, to tax cigs at a higher rate only in Philly, estimating it can produce an additional $80 million-plus a year.

(I estimate it produces street entrepreneurs selling van-loads of cigs from Kentucky and West Virginia.)

Authorization passed the Senate yesterday but House leaders show no interest in it, unless maybe they can couple it with a new GOP wish.

So it's murky. Even some Philly members say they don't support the tax.

And yesterday Philly Rep. Angel Cruz called for an audit of the school district: "Something is not working within the school district's finances, and it's imperative we find out what it is and fix it before we pour more money into the district."

So, to recap: A budget's passed but unsigned; Philly schools still in limbo; little evidence of intelligent life.