John Baer: Corbett promised cuts, and delivered, but plenty of policy questions remain

Gov. Corbett talks with Chuck Queenan (left) and Peter Kalis of law firm K&L Gates before addressing the Appalachian Basin Oil & Gas Seminar yesterday near Pittsburgh. Story, Page 23.
Gov. Corbett talks with Chuck Queenan (left) and Peter Kalis of law firm K&L Gates before addressing the Appalachian Basin Oil & Gas Seminar yesterday near Pittsburgh. Story, Page 23. (Associated Press)
Posted: April 27, 2011

Note: This story has been clarified from an earlier version.

GOV. CORBETT's first 100 days - he hits that mini-milestone tomorrow - offer insights into who he is and how he'll govern, and show a mix of results.

He campaigned on reforming the evils of Harrisburg, especially the Legislature, and putting the brakes on taxes and spending.

So far, he's known for opposing taxes, especially on Marcellus Shale drilling, and backing big cuts in spending, especially in education.

Reform's another story.

His campaign pledge to hand lawmakers on "day one" reforms they wouldn't like was a week late and watery.

Highlights called for a biennial budget, performance goals for agencies and an end to legislative discretionary spending. He also asked for receipts for expenses (where but Harrisburg is that NOT done?) and asked lawmakers to start paying more than 1 percent of their salaries toward  health-care costs, maybe 3 percent.

When so many pay so much for health care (if they can get it; Corbett dropped a state program, adultBasic, that provided low-cost coverage for lower-income workers), I don't see this as heavy lifting.

Corbett also clashed with his promised culture change by naming former New Jersey transportation official Roger Nutt, father of Corbett's longtime political aide/campaign manager, Brian Nutt, to run the Pennsylvania Turnpike for $196,000.

Sure made Harrisburg seem like the same old place.

The only law he's signed so far repeals mandatory sprinklers in new homes. He calls this "common sense" that saves folks money and keeps government at bay.

Others call it a gift to builders or the "Right to Fry Law."

Either way, the Guv hasn't started (excuse the expression) like a house on fire.

All this and blowback from proposed education cuts no doubt account for a poll two weeks ago putting his approval rating at only 34 percent.

(The poll was from Public Policy Polling, which leans left; a new Quinnipiac University poll on Corbett is due out today.)

I sat down with the Guv this week to talk about his 100 days.

Biggest surprise so far?

"I'm not surprised by much," he says, but he is surprised by "how hard it is to keep anything confidential, given where I came from [the state Attorney General's Office]."

Like what? Like appointments such as Nutt's dad? Leaks about seeking 4 percent pay cuts from state unions?

He demurs.

What about that Nutt job? A mistake?

"No," says Corbett, "he's the most qualified person in that job [turnpike CEO] in at least the last 16 years. I went for a qualified person. The mere fact he was Brian's dad shouldn't disqualify him."

Since you're asking teachers to take a pay freeze and state workers to take pay cuts, what about you, your top staff and your Cabinet taking a pay cut?

"I've brought many people in here that took pay cuts. . . . Not this year; they took their pay cut."

(Corbett's salary is set at $177,888. But he takes last year's rate of $174,914 - a $30,000 raise from his A.G pay.)

Assuming the sprinkler bill wasn't his choice for his first bill, what was?

"Tort reform."

On education, he says 50 percent higher-ed cuts are a "starting point" for discussion. He insists K-12 cuts aren't really cuts but a return to pre-federal-stimulus levels. He pulls out a chart showing that state funding for basic-ed actually increases under his budget, from $5.226 billion to $5.228 billion.

"That [federal stimulus] money went away. Who cut education?"

He's sticking hard to no taxes on shale and still wants a school-voucher bill. He's keynoting a national school-choice summit in Washington on May 9.

On the overall budget, he says that even if state revenue comes in higher than expected (some Democrats say it could be higher by $300 million or more), he's sticking with $27.3 billion as the final number.

"If you get extra money, you can spend it later."

He insists he has "no choice" but to cut: "I'm not happy doing this. . . . I'd love to have a $4 billion surplus." He adds, "Could I be a one-term governor? Sure."

Every governor needs settling-in time. Ed Rendell's first 100 days were sloppy, marked by backpedaling on promises to hit the ground running, a fake budget, controversy over Cabinet picks and unsupportable assertions that half the state's high-school juniors couldn't read.

But if Corbett is bothered by a sluggish start, he doesn't show it: "For every one complaint I get, I get seven or eight who tell me, 'Keep doing what you're doing.' "

Seems like that's his intention - for a lot more than 100 days.

Send email to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

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

CLARIFICATION: A previous reference to state lawmakers’ health-care benefits in this column implied lawmakers pay 1 percent of their health-care costs. They pay 1 percent of their salary toward their health-care coverage. For most lawmakers that’s $796 a-year.

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