Veteran Carbon County lawmaker Keith McCall's decision to retire at the end of the year was a long time coming; he's been flirting with the idea for years. But it was last year's marathon budget talks and the time they took from his family that finally weighted the decision to head out Harrisburg's door and back home to Summit Hill.
He announced the decision Tuesday, saying he needs to spend more time with his wife, Betty, and children Courtney, 11, and Keith Robert, 9.
As McCall, who turned 50 in December, wraps up his 14th and final term as state representative and his first as Speaker of the House he's gearing up for a challenging year ahead. First and foremost is the crafting of a new budget, a task that threatens to be just as tense and time-consuming as last year's, he said Thursday.
"Last year, we were $3.5 billion short on revenue. We either had to raise taxes or cut programs. (Preparing this year's budget) will be a Herculean task," he said. "Last year's shortfall will be compounded this year. We used a one-time revenue source in last year's budget that won't be there this year."
McCall said he and others expected to meet with Gov. Ed Rendell on Thursday to discuss the budget.
"We are going to have to cut more. We're going to be back at it with a very difficult budget. We aim to get the budget proposal out of the House by March," he said.
Rendell is predicting a $1.9 billion shortfall this year.
Last year's budget talks hit a 101-day stalemate, with a spending plan finally being signed on Oct. 9, after months of rancorous debate. This year promises to be another long, hot summer in Harrisburg.
Along with the budget stress is pervasive tension rising from the ongoing "Bonusgate" investigation by the state Office of the Attorney General. The investigation, into whether tax dollars were given by officials to staffers who helped out with high-profile campaigns on state time, began about three years ago. The investigation has thus far yielded 25 arrests and one acquittal.
The scandal has not touched McCall, who said his decision to retire at the end of his term has nothing to do with the investigation.
"Not one iota. This was all a personal and family decision, 100 percent," he said.
McCall was first elected to the representative's seat in 1982, when he was a single lad of 22. His father, the late Rep. Thomas J. McCall, had died suddenly on Christmas Eve, 1981.
County voters "literally watched me grow up in this job. They took a chance, and I'm honored and privileged by and for that support," he said. "That's something I will never forget. I love the people of this county they have been so supportive of me and I truly appreciate it."
His family, McCall said, was "elated" with his decision. His children "know they are getting their father back. At my swearing in, I said that I may be getting the title of House Speaker, but my most important title is Dad," McCall said. "They are delighted knowing I'll be back home."
McCall said he began feeling a tug to return four years ago.
"I thought about moving on in 2006. But then so much happened, I couldn't just walk away from it. I was elected in 2006 to Majority Whip; then ran again in 2008, then elected to Speaker."
Being elected by his peers to the most powerful office in the legislature was by far the highlight of his political career, McCall said.
"It's an awesome feeling, and there's an awesome responsibility that goes with it," he said.
He's proud of the bills that were passed during his tenure, and is satisfied that he kept his promise to the people of Carbon County that he would be their voice in Harrisburg.
McCall sees his legacy as "my accessibility to the public. I made sure that door was open 24/7 to the public. My constituents' voices were heard in Harrisburg," he said. "I always made sure that they were part of the debate. I never wavered from that. That's the strongest form of representation."
But the hours that stretched into days that stretched into weeks at a time away from his wife and children wore on him, he said. He needed to be husband and father, full-time.
McCall said he has no immediate plans after December. Although he said he does have "some offers on the table," he just wants to "sit back and catch my breath. I've lived out of a suitcase for close to 30 years. I just want to be home."
But that doesn't mean being idle.
"I will still be involved in community service," he said. But this time, it will be closer to home.