Corbett taking open policy points to budget address

Gov. Corbett's budget address this week has been called the unofficial startof his reelection bid.
Gov. Corbett's budget address this week has been called the unofficial startof his reelection bid. (AP)
Posted: February 04, 2013

HARRISBURG - For the first time since he was elected, Gov. Corbett is heading into his budget address this week hiding few, if any, political cards.

Unlike the first two years of his tenure, there are no guessing games. The governor has spent the last few weeks crisscrossing the state, leaving little room for interpretation: He wants to rein in the skyrocketing costs of public-employee pensions, and he wants to find money for roads, bridges, and mass transit.

And if he can squeeze in privatizing Pennsylvania's much-maligned liquor system while he's at it, so much the better.

It is a stark turnaround from previous years, when administration officials zealously tried to shield even their smallest policy initiatives, and were, more often than not, vague about their priorities or short on details before Corbett's budget speech.

The difference may be because this time, when the governor steps to the lectern Tuesday to deliver his third budget address to General Assembly, his words are expected to rank among the most important of his career.

"This speech is really going to be Tom Corbett's unofficial reelection speech," said pollster and political analyst G. Terry Madonna. "Sure, what he will say will be hugely important for the future of the commonwealth - but that doesn't preclude it from also being a kickoff to the 2014 election."

Corbett just last week was confronted with yet another sobering poll showing most voters are dissatisfied with the job he's doing, and do not think he deserves reelection. After that news, the top Republican in the state Senate, Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, lamented what he called the administration's "Washington-style politics," expressing reservations about some Corbett policy goals, and signaling that the next few months will be no easy ride.

All of which points to a long spring for the Republican governor, whose leadership mettle will be judged, inside and outside the Capitol, by how much of his ambitious agenda he gets accomplished.

This time, Corbett has gone on the offensive. For weeks, he has been visiting editorial boards, appearing on radio and television, and sitting down for one-on-one interviews to lay out his priorities.

Top among them is stemming the flow of dollars to the state's two pension funds, covering state employees and public school workers. The plans have an unfunded liability of $41 billion, with pension costs in the next few years projected to skyrocket.

Corbett is expected to detail his plan for controlling those costs Tuesday. He and key aides have all but said they would scale back pensions for new and current employees, while assuring retirees that their benefits won't change.

Such a proposal could trigger both a legislative and legal battle - legal, because many argue that the law precludes changing benefits for current employees; legislative, because (though no one is saying it publicly) lawmakers would effectively be voting to cut their own pensions.

Corbett is resolute. "We've got to get this done," he told Inquirer reporters and editors.

In fact, he is already upping the stakes, warning legislators that if they do nothing about pensions, he will find other places to cut in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. First to the chopping block, budget czar Charles Zogby warned, could be public education - an area where the governor has already slashed aid and which legislators have said can't absorb any more cuts.

"Ed Rendell taught the art of hostage-taking to many of us in this building," Scarnati told reporters last week, referring to budget battles with Corbett's Democratic predecessor. "That's Washington-style politics, and we don't need that."

On transportation funding, Corbett may find himself in less of a tussle with legislators - and more in a fight with himself.

Details of his proposal have leaked out - among them, an uncapping of the so-called oil company franchise tax to raise roughly $2 billion. The tax is levied on the wholesale price of gasoline and is now capped at $1.25 per gallon.

Already, the governor has had to field questions about whether his proposal would bump up against his no-tax pledge. Uncapping the franchise tax, some critics say, would result in drivers paying more at the pump.

On its face, an easier sell should be liquor privatization - the public supports it in poll after poll. Last week, when Corbett rolled out his plan to bring beer and wine to supermarkets, convenience stores, and big-box stores, he added a sweetener: The $1 billion he expects to raise by selling off the liquor stores would go to public schools in the form of block grants applied in such areas as school safety, the sciences, and early childhood education.

(On Friday, he added another budget sweetener, pledging not to seek a third year of cuts for state-supported colleges, in return for schools' vow to limit any tuition increases)

Whether Corbett makes liquor privatization a central theme in his budget efforts, however, remains to be seen. Popular or not, talk of full-blown privatization has sparked little enthusiasm among top Senate Republicans - to say nothing of unionized liquor-store clerks and their Democratic allies.

So the stage may be set for the kind of brinkmanship no one wants - least of all, a governor making his case to be rehired.

"None of us want to have a summer-long budget fight," Scarnati said. "And I think we need to grasp that we must govern."


Contact Angela Couloumbis

at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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