John Baer: Money and votes talk, liberal sentiments walk

Posted: March 02, 2011

IF THERE was any doubt about the new Republican-run Legislature and the new Republican governor gutting government, placating industry and slamming the door on new taxes, such doubt is quickly evaporating.

Even though specifics of how exactly the state is to be run aren't due until Tuesday, when Gov. Corbett presents his first budget to a joint session of the Legislature, sufficient evidence is emerging to pretty much figure it out.

For starters, the governor just rescinded an environmental-protection effort of the Democratic Rendell administration requiring impact analyses prior to natural-gas drilling in state forests; and he let it be known that he won't tax the industry, and he'll lift a ban on leasing 800,000 more acres of state land to drillers.

This doesn't thrill environmentalists, hikers, campers and the like. It doesn't sit well with those concerned about toxic drinking water. But it sure makes things a whole lot easier for energy companies chasing natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, the same companies that gave Corbett's campaign $835,720.

But give him this: He's doing what he said or implied he'd do; he's giving voters what they voted for.

Same goes for that no-tax thing.

While nearly every experienced observer questions how Corbett can balance a budget with an estimated $4 billion deficit without new revenue, the consistent message continues to be, "Just watch me."

That message was underscored this week when Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, spoke at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.

"When I signed up for this job, I knew it was no new taxes, no new fees," said Zogby, a former education secretary and policy director under Gov. Tom Ridge. "That's a challenge that I accepted as the budget secretary and, frankly, happily accepted as a Pennsylvania taxpayer."

After pointing out that state spending since 2002 has grown 37 percent while state revenue has grown only 25 percent, Zogby said that it's time to fund only "the core missions of government."

He added, presumably for all those not working in or benefitting from such missions, that "the day of reckoning has arrived."

And when I asked if he believes that Pennsylvania needs a Department of Education, he paused, asked, "Needs?" paused again and said, "Probably, though it would be much leaner if I were king."

This translates, in my view, to deep cuts in social programs and education, which he did not list as part of government's "core mission."

Not good news for Philadelphia. Not good news for poor people. But exactly what the standard Republican policy book suggests, and exactly what state voters chose.

Same goes for the Legislature.

Apparently in full agreement with Corbett that the state keep its unique, if questionable, policy of not taxing commercial extraction of its significant natural resources, legislative leaders are not open to taxing gas from shale.

This week, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, offered an amendment to a routine bill during a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His amendment would tax extraction at 4 percent to raise $162 million to be split among communities in drilling areas, environmental protection efforts and improvements to infrastructure.

It didn't even get discussed. Republicans pulled the bill in question.

(GOP Senate President Joe Scarnati got $117,575 from drillers, second only to Corbett, and a trip to this year's Super Bowl.)

In the House, Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, who already has introduced a gas-tax bill, today is sending a letter to Corbett signed by 70 House members seeking a three-year moratorium on leasing more state lands. He calls such leasing "short-sighted and bad public policy . . . using state forests as a cash cow."

Problem is, only one letter-signer is Republican.

All this, combined with the decision to allow a state health-insurance program for lower-income working folks to die this week, suggests a direction directly in line with GOP less-government/pro-industry policies.

And what it means is, voters get what they voted for, and industry gets what it paid for.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/JohnBaer. Read Baer's blog at www.philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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