John Baer: Of pins and pains: Corbett gives us exactly what we voted for

Posted: March 09, 2011

MAYBE the little red keystone-shaped lapel pin that Gov. Corbett wore for his budget address yesterday was meant to signal "stop" state spending.

Or maybe to convey, "Hey, y'all, we're a red state now."

Either way, its wearer communicated both. He delivered a message aimed at putting Pennsylvania on a pro-business path with less government.

And, politically, he struck almost every note of his successful fall campaign.

He reprised, as expected, his no-new-taxes promise and punched it hard.

"We must tax no more," he said. "Because the people have no more to give."

A little later: "To the people of Pennsylvania, the taxpayers who sent us here, I want to say something you haven't heard often enough from this building: We get the picture. It's your money."

He called for massive cuts in education, cuts in government operations, an end to lawmakers' "walking-around-money" for pet projects and elimination of 1,500 state jobs.

Proposed public-schools cuts of roughly $1 billion could, if adopted, erase former Gov. Rendell's education legacy in one budget cycle. His $27.3 billion plan represents a 3 percent overall spending cut.

Beyond spending fewer dollars, Corbett also called for change.

The Guv wants teachers and school administrators to freeze their salaries for a year. He wants school districts to put proposed tax increases up for voter approval. He wants public-employee unions to take wage and benefit cuts.

And even though his language regarding unions was softer than, say, fellow-Republican Gov. Chris Christie's or Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker's, Corbett said, "We cannot keep asking taxpayers to cover increased salaries and health-care benefits for public-sector employees when those taxpayers are losing the same."

The 41-minute address to a joint session of the Legislature was interrupted 32 times by applause, mostly from GOP members.(One inescapable visual was that of Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, seated behind Corbett, repeatedly nodding and clapping in agreement. I'm betting Cawley saw the budget line showing a $364,000 increase to $1.3 million for the lieutenant governor's office, even as other spending got slashed.)

Corbett reaffirmed that there would be no extraction tax on the thriving natural-gas industry, a huge campaign contributor. He called for business-tax cuts and credits.

All of this is reflective of his candidacy and GOP leadership in other states.

It is, for now, a populist stance offering constituents just what they voted for.

"Gov. Corbett is a straight-shooter," Mayor Nutter told me after the speech, "The governor said as governor what he had been saying as a candidate."

He did indeed.

Several other Democrats said that Corbett is balancing his budget on the backs of the middle class while repaying campaign contributors.

Fifty percent cuts in higher education will mean increased college tuitions, said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philly, noting, "The larger corporate community has no sacrifice. They get off scot- free."

Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philly, ripped Corbett for saying that the budget funds "must-have" - not "nice-to-have" - programs while not mentioning that it cuts basic health insurance for lower-income workers.

"I guess he thinks basic health coverage is a luxury," said Stack.

Corbett's speech, well-crafted and well-delivered, had few dollar figures other than those used to make points about educators and unions.

He said that freezing school employees' pay for a year could save $400 million. He noted that state workers' median salary is $45,105 while the private-sector median is $32,239. And he said that state workers pay only 3 percent of their salary for their health coverage while almost everyone else pays much more.

What he didn't mention - though he proposes a slight reduction in the Legislature's operating budget - is that lawmakers pay only 1 percent for health insurance. Would have been nice to hear some shared-sacrifice talk aimed at lawmakers.

Still, Corbett is likely to get most or all of what he wants because there is no money and Republicans run the show.

Oh, and that lapel pin? It's actually the pin of the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard, of which he was a member.

He wears it from time to time - even when not trying to send a message.

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