John Baer: Gov. Corbett, Day One: Optimism ... and that deficit

Tom Corbett, with wife, Susan, looking on, takes the oath of office in cold and wet Harrisburg yesterday.
Tom Corbett, with wife, Susan, looking on, takes the oath of office in cold and wet Harrisburg yesterday.
Posted: January 19, 2011

GOV. CORBETT yesterday kicked off his incumbency with broad, feel-good sentiments, few specifics and an overall optimism that things are about to get better in Pennsylvania.

His inaugural address invoked the spirit of the state's founders, who he said - in a clever reference to more current times? - sought to escape "government exploitation and excess" that was "prone to political favor."

He advocated reforms, fiscal discipline and a government that performs "exceptionally for all Pennsylvanians."

The Pittsburgh Republican and former state attorney general spoke for 16 minutes from a stage behind the Capitol on a damp, cold day made markedly worse by an occasional icy mist.

An estimated 1,000 attendees sat on wet or ice-covered metal bleachers and chairs. Some used Corbett policy handouts as seat covers.

The day was so ugly that Republican House Speaker Sam Smith told the crowd that the National Football League wanted to postpone the event for three days, but Corbett said "no dice."

It was a clear message that the incoming administration does not count itself among outgoing Democrat Ed Rendell's "nation of wusses."

Rendell and his wife, Midge Rendell, a federal appeals court judge, were there, as were former Govs. Ridge, Thornburgh and Schweiker.

There were protesters, roughly a football field away, behind a snow-fence, watched closely by 10 horse-mounted state troopers.

The group of about 100 appeared to be mostly environmentalists advocating a moratorium on natural-gas drilling and opposing Corbett's stance against taxing the Marcellus Shale industry.

There were signs: "Tom Corporate" and "No Free Pass for Oil and Gas." And bullhorns, whistles and chants could be heard throughout Corbett's address, which did not mention the shale issue.

His speech was simple, straightforward and politely received, drawing muffled, gloved-handed applause eight times.

Applause lines included Corbett's promise to dedicate every day to "fiscal discipline and a responsible, limited government"; a pledge to push (unspecified) "government and legislative reform"; and a call for "competition and choice" in public education.

It was a distillation of the themes of his campaign, spiced with a large dose of optimism: "I see a promising future . . . a future that sets free the kind of creativity and competition that will make Pennsylvania the envy of our nation."

While there was no direct reference to his campaign touchstone, a no-new-taxes-for-anybody pledge, there was a line suggesting government cuts rather than taxes.

"You deserve a government that will not ask more of its citizens until it asks more of itself," Corbett said.

Since every governor in the last 40 years, regardless of political party or the state of the economy, raised taxes, I read the "until" as meaning that once cuts are made, then come taxes.

I cornered former Gov. Ridge to ask if he thinks that it's possible to close a multi-billion budget deficit without new taxes, especially on shale.

Ridge, who (among other things) works for a coalition of Marcellus drillers, said he didn't know without seeing real budget numbers. But he said that voters likely view a shale tax differently from a direct tax on them: "I think they see that pledge as meaning [while hitting his chest] no tax on me."

Hmmm. Sounds to me like the start of an out.

Mayor Nutter was in attendance. I asked if he worries that a conservative Republican from the other side of the state might make things worse for Philadelphia.

"I would say my two main concerns are overall funding of education and public-welfare/homelessness programs so desperately needed in cities and counties across the state," Nutter said.

"It will be extremely challenging and potentially devastating to close a $5 billion [state] budget deficit solely with cuts," he said.

Corbett's first budget is due in March. During the campaign he said he'd offer

a package of legislative reforms his first week in office.

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