Karen Heller: Finally, Pennsylvania's new governor speaks

Posted: January 19, 2011

Tom Corbett speaks! Pennsylvania's 46th governor finally addressed the multitudes at his inauguration Tuesday who were curious what he - like Garbo, like Harpo - actually sounds like.

The commonwealth's former attorney general has been largely silent since winning the election in November. In the rare moment when Corbett deigns to speak, instead of having a spokesman do it for him, he rarely goes off script, which, among so many other aspects, marks a radical departure from his immediate predecessor.

On a gray and gloppy Tuesday, a given for inaugurations, Corbett paid tribute to William Penn, taking the oath with the state founder's Bible. He also invoked Benjamin Franklin. Which shows that the Allegheny County Republican can pay homage to Philadelphians. As long as they happen to be dead.

Corbett promised to dedicate his time in office "to fiscal discipline and a responsible, limited government," tough sledding when dealing with an estimated $4 billion budget shortfall and the nation's most bloated, oversize, and robustly redundant legislature whose members draw full-time pay while meeting less than half the year and employing 2,918 staffers.

The new governor cited the problem of "the deadlock between the current size of the government and the size our government should be." He said he and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley "are dedicated to leadership that is responsive to fiscal realities: leadership that takes on financial burdens, rather than passing those burdens on to the next generation."

Which is the moment when he might have turned to the outgoing governor and added, "Thanks a lot, Spendell."

A high point came when Corbett - not known for his wit or, for that matter, words - intoned: "To those who create jobs and to those who raise our future workers: You deserve a government that will not ask more of its citizens until it asks more of itself." Irony! "I will not shrink from such a challenge."

This was thrilling! Real substance in an inaugural address.

Of course, when Corbett mentioned shrink in the same breath as government, I realized he might not be talking about the legislature. He would need a constitutional convention for that one. Perhaps he was alluding to his intention to sell the beloved state liquor stores, which he's mentioned as a goal and his spokesman has labeled "a Soviet-style monopoly." Which is so not fair to the Soviets.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was established four days before the 1933 repeal of Prohibition by Gov. Gifford Pinchot, to "discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible," a promise the PLCB has made good on to this day.

"Inconvenient and impossible," by the way, is also the motto of the Pennsylvania legislature.

In any event, two other Republican governors, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, tried and failed to privatize the state's hooch system. So good luck with that!

Corbett also ran for governor on the George Bush (the first) platform of no new taxes. An inaugural address is rarely the time for specifics, but Corbett and his cabinet have their work cut out for them if they want to create jobs, close a $4 billion budget gap, and avoid raising taxes.

Tuesday marked a huge tectonic shift in Pennsylvania politics, not only with Republicans solidly in control of Harrisburg, but also in the rise of the West with the parting of Rendell, often dubbed "the governor of Philadelphia." With legislators from the Ohio side of the state in almost all leadership positions, it's these Pittsburgh Stealers who now control the agenda.

So when Corbett said the best way to make Pennsylvanians "competitive is to make us competitive in education," he was not on the precipice of cutting a fat check to the Philadelphia School District, which receives 55 percent of its $3.2 billion budget from the state and is under serious scrutiny from the House Education Committee. Uh, no. Corbett added: "We must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system." Which is another way of saying: "I'm all about the vouchers."

The new governor said, "Let us also step forward firmly dedicated to a civil discourse," while being accompanied by the boisterous vocal stylings of anti-drilling protesters. "Tom Corbett, no way! No fracking in PA!" threatened to drown out his speech.

In Harrisburg, though, where acrimony and budgets reached interminable impasses during the last eight years, it should be far easier to have a civil discourse now with Republicans completely in control of the governor's mansion and both houses in the legislature. In Philadelphia, where Democrats control everything, you can still have acrimony and budget battles. But that's Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Democrats.

Corbett's inaugural address was followed Tuesday night by a ball at Harrisburg's Farm Show Complex and Expo Center, a commendable tradition launched eight years ago by Rendell. On this issue, if on little else, the two governors agree.

Anyone can hold an inaugural ball in some swank hotel. Pennsylvania is possibly the only state that has formally attired politicians reveling in a hall that was home, only three days earlier, to polka dancing, tractor pulls, and swine.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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