Public schools, pensions to top Corbett's budget address

Gov. Corbett's address should be upbeat.
Gov. Corbett's address should be upbeat.
Posted: February 03, 2014

HARRISBURG Public schools and pensions will top the agenda when Gov. Corbett delivers his fourth budget address Tuesday.

And overall, the news is expected to be good.

So signaled Budget Secretary Charles Zogby on Friday, saying the governor will be making "substantial new investments" in education, health care, and jobs programs.

He would not give specific numbers. But Zogby said the administration faced tough financial times over the last three years and made difficult decisions to rein in spending - decisions, he said, that are beginning to pay dividends.

"We are at a pivot point," said Zogby, "where the governor's hard work and tough decisions have really paid off. The state is in a better position."

Still, Zogby cautioned that the rapidly rising cost of public employee pensions remains "the biggest challenge to the state's fiscal health and stability," and that the legislature has to agree to give the state a financial breather in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

As it stands, the cost to maintain the state government pension system, and to pay the state's share of public school workers' pensions, is set to increase by $600 million, Zogby said.

While the Republican governor will not push the aggressive pension changes he advocated for last year - they lacked support in the legislature - he is expected to propose temporarily lowering the minimum amount state governments and school districts have to pay into the pension funds.

In Harrisburg circles, the practice is known as placing "collars" on those pension obligations.

The savings to the state: $170 million, he said. The savings to school districts: $130 million.

Some of those savings could go toward providing additional money for public schools - although administration officials have been reluctant to link the two.

On Friday, Zogby would only say that the governor's spending plan would provide more money for both preschool and K-12 education.

The Inquirer has reported that the governor will be asking for several hundred million more in basic education funding for public schools.

And last week, Corbett was in Philadelphia to announce an additional $10 million, for a total of $97 million, to help an additional 1,670 children from middle- and lower-income families attend prekindergarten programs.

Corbett also is expected to address the Affordable Care Act and his efforts to implement a Pennsylvania-specific version of Medicaid expansion that would use federal funds to pay the costs of health coverage for hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents.

But Corbett wants the federal government to let the state require that recipients search for work and pay a monthly premium based on their income.

The stakes this year are high. Corbett faces a tough reelection fight and anemic public approval ratings, with the loudest criticism reserved for his past cuts to public school funding.

As a result, his address to the legislature - and televised cameras - could contain elements of a stump speech. The speech is considered so important that Corbett has hired a veteran presidential speechwriter for help.

The Inquirer reported last week that Corbett's campaign has hired John P. McConnell, who wrote some of President George W. Bush's most memorable remarks, to finesse his budget address.

It is still not known how much McConnell will be paid, but the governor's campaign said it would be picking up the tab.

Political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said the speech will be closely watched.

The question, he said, is: "Will it be transformational?"

Madonna's most recent poll, released last week, showed that only one in four voters believed Corbett had done a good enough job to deserve reelection.

"This can't be a budget that takes things away from people," Madonna said. "He's got to get the voters to give his tenure another look."



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