Corbett needs to chart his own 'Pennsylvania Way'

Gov. Corbett needs to propose fresh policy ideas that will generate broad support, even among Democrats.
Gov. Corbett needs to propose fresh policy ideas that will generate broad support, even among Democrats.

Fresh ideas that win broad support are his key to reelection.

Posted: January 14, 2013

Like many Republican governors, Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett is in a precarious situation in 2013. President Obama's reelection gives nearly all GOP governors daunting odds for winning second terms in 2014. If they can't break with the libertarian-economic groupthink and big-bank interests that have led the Party of Lincoln to near ruin, they will be voted out of office.

Granted, Republican officeholders like Corbett are banking that a party's sixth White House year will trigger big returns for the opposition. But that would be misreading the tea leaves. Five years into the Great Recession, the 2010s are looking like the 1930s, an era when Republicans fell out of grace with the American people for nearly half a century.

To ensure that his party doesn't go the way of the Whigs, Corbett needs to chart a new course, a "Pennsylvania Way" that is not written by the conservative think tanks, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or the Republican Governors Association. Instead of sticking to tax and budget cuts, he needs to propose fresh policy ideas that generate broad support, even among Democrats.

By focusing on tangibles that deliver hundreds of thousands of "family-wage" jobs - offering higher pay and generous benefits to working-class and middle-income Pennsylvanians - the governor would oversee the transformation of a state whose broadly shared prosperity, population growth, and cultural achievements stalled in the 1970s. Moreover, Corbett would offer a clear alternative to the president, whose big ideas center on welfare and Medicaid expansion.

The Keystone State's history offers precedent for a better way. From building the "Main Line of Public Works" in the 19th century to the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 20th, Pennsylvania has been an infrastructure pacesetter. Just as the Depression-era toll highway paved the way for the interstate system, a comprehensive 21st-century initiative could transform the state's neglected network of highways, bridges, and mass-transit systems, and set an example for neighboring states.

By incorporating "smart" technology, an updated and expanded infrastructure would relieve highway congestion statewide, while enhancing public safety. The plan could also include projects to protect the Commonwealth and its electrical-power grid from storms like Hurricane Sandy, as well as expand access to broadband.

Yet infrastructure isn't enough. Pivoting off another Pennsylvania first - the development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955 - Corbett should collaborate with U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), who has called for an Apollo-style program to fight disease. The goal: Establish the Philadelphia area as a medical-research enterprise zone dedicated to finding cures for debilitating conditions including cell disorders or cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, autism, and all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's.

A focus on cures rather than care would multiply the kind of breakthroughs achieved at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia last month when researchers used the virus that causes AIDS to cure a 6-year-old of leukemia. The zone would also include programs for wounded soldiers, ensuring full rehabilitation of injured Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Key to this project: All research in the designated zone would be trial-lawyer free and streamlined for approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

The mechanics and specifics of financing these capital-intensive projects would have to be worked out. However, great countries - and visionary leaders - do not accept excuses for nixing promising initiatives that would reboot the economy, create good jobs, and expand the middle class. Great leaders find the resources and proceed.

To pay for infrastructure upgrades, Corbett could reverse his earlier opposition and propose a modest severance tax on shale-oil production, pledging that all such revenue would go into a transportation lockbox. The more shale oil that is fracked, the bigger the fund grows, and everyone would benefit from fully expanding the shale-oil industry. For the medical-cures effort, Corbett could tap private sources, both venture and philanthropic here and overseas, including wealthy families willing to fund large monetary prizes when specific cures are found.

The scope of the Pennsylvania Way would certainly require far more capital, especially up front. If he were bold, the governor would demand his state's share of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program. Right now, the Fed is pumping $85 billion a month into "the economy," shuffling funny money to big banks to buy T-bills and mortgage-backed securities, with little benefit to working people and businesses.

Why not try something real, like diverting a portion of these billions to finance infrastructure improvements and a medical-cures effort that would create high-paying jobs? If Corbett were able to secure just half of that money corresponding to Pennsylvania's 4 percent of the population, the Commonwealth would enjoy a capital budget of $20 billion a year.

That sum would be more than adequate to revitalize the Keystone State, its economy, and its health. By reversing the exodus of middle-class jobs, the governor would also revive his party's declining fortunes, while coasting to reelection in 2014.

Robert W. Patterson served as a welfare adviser in the Corbett administration. E-mail him at

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