Karen Heller: Corbett offers a smooth speech and deep cuts

Posted: March 09, 2011

On Fat Tuesday, Gov. Corbett served Lean Cuisine, extracting $4.16 billion from Pennsylvania's annual budget, mostly from education and social services that affect the state's youngest and most vulnerable residents.

In the opulent House chambers, Corbett offered a well-delivered and, given the economy, surprisingly upbeat address. Politically, it was a smart speech, the sort offered by a calming doctor, say, Marcus Welby, whom Corbett resembles. His address suggested that "things are going to be just fine," when the truth is, maybe not just yet.

Corbett is proving to be a great friend to business. He upheld his campaign promise of no new tariffs out of concern that "we don't scare off these industries with new taxes," not even extraction fees on the potential income bonanza that is the Marcellus Shale. Which is nonsense. Nothing will scare off oil and gas companies from coming here. The Marcellus Shale is the crack cocaine of energy. "Let's make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural-gas boom," Corbett intoned while announcing creation of an advisory commission that appears to list toward industry officials and legislators.

"It just seemed like it was Fat Tuesday for big corporations," said union leader Kathy Jellison, while Corbett asked for salary rollbacks and job freezes from state employees. Businesses won't have to give up anything for Lent.

From the well-turned metaphors to the quotes from Faulkner and Wordsworth, residents might have been lulled into believing that the budget offered no serious cuts to services or drastic changes to how Pennsylvania does business.

What Corbett failed to tell taxpayers, at least not directly, is that the damage is in the details.

Such as slashing higher education funding in half. Penn State received the largest funding cut in its history, $182 million, 52.4 percent of its state appropriation. "A funding gap this large is going to fundamentally change the way we operate," said university president Graham Spanier, "from the number of students we can educate, to the tuition we must charge, to the programs we offer and the services we can provide, to the number of employees and the research we undertake." I'm not sure how you "put families first" only for them to see state tuition potentially skyrocket.

Penn State officials said no one in the governor's office informed them of the impending cuts before Tuesday's address. In an era where "transparency" is treasured in politics and business, the Corbett administration tends toward the opaque. It's all a fog until the pronounced "day of reckoning."

To Corbett's credit, and as he promised during his campaign, the former public-school teacher left intact the current budget for early-childhood education, which both parties support. But he reduced basic education funding by 10 percent, $550 million, while suggesting a one-year salary freeze for all school employees. He also proposed eliminating salary bumps for teachers with master's degrees, which will reduce the education of our instructors. And he championed vouchers and school choice, which have the potential to make the state's failing institutions, many of them in our region, fall even further.

The good news: By comparison to New Jersey or Illinois, Pennsylvania is in far better fiscal shape. Twelve states face shortfalls that represent a greater percentage of their budgets. Corbett's calm and reasoned approach is preferable to the combative stance adopted elsewhere. No one said this was going to be easy, but it might have been nicer if the administration had distributed the burden more equitably.

It's important to remember that Corbett delivered this address in front of the most bloated, expensive, full-time legislature in the land, one that currently has surplus slush funds and has not offered to freeze salaries or take pay cuts. Then again, those decisions are left in the legislators' hands, though Corbett announced he was going after their precious Walking Around Money.

Because Corbett will not raise business taxes or introduce fees, for fear of some body part falling off, the burden and hard business of making difficult choices shifts to municipalities. Furthermore, the governor suggested that "any new property tax increases beyond inflation should be put on the ballot" - a tad too late for us lucky Philadelphians who were never asked to approve our almost 10 percent hike.

However, if you ask residents to approve tax increases, you can probably guess how they're going to vote. In the end, Pennsylvanians will most likely pay the same taxes for less, a crowd-pleaser every time.

Corbett proposes to eliminate 1,500 state jobs, the majority (1,200) from the Department of Public Welfare, 774 in mental health services. If you cut state mental health services, there's most likely going to be an increased demand for hospitals, law enforcement, and prisons.

That's the problem with making difficult choices and slashing services. Trouble doesn't disappear. It has a talent for showing up somewhere else.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Read her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


comments powered by Disqus