A Pa. budget address offering peace pipes and magic

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Gov. Corbett , seen through a teleprompter, delivers his fourth budget address - will it be his last?
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Gov. Corbett , seen through a teleprompter, delivers his fourth budget address - will it be his last?
Posted: February 06, 2014

WHAT TO DO when facing a re-election fight that (at this stage) makes challenges faced by Gen. George Armstrong Custer seem small?

Well, if you're Gov. Corbett, you offer a peace pipe.

He did that yesterday by proposing to put his money (actually yours) where his political problems are.

Under fire for education cuts? How about a few hundred million in new funding, including $29 million more for Philly schools?

Not polling well with women? Here come spending increases for child care, pre-K and programs aiding victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Getting a rep for handing natural resources over to gas drillers who contribute to your campaigns? Maybe that can be eased with a big bump in spending for statewide parks and forests.

All this, a bit of magic and more is tucked into Corbett's proposed spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.

He offered it yesterday in a speech to lawmakers in the state House chamber, but it clearly was directed at statewide voters.

I was surprised he didn't propose reinstalling Paterno's statue.

The theme, repeated five times in a 39-minute address, was "building a stronger Pennsylvania" - a/k/a "building a stronger case for re-election."

The $29.4 billion plan includes no new taxes and nothing likely to stir much controversy.

There was, however, the "miracle of the disappearing deficit" and some "election-year-only reality."

Examples of the latter: noting that he's signed three on-time balanced budgets with no new taxes, Corbett said, "We are doing things right."

Unless he meant conservative right, Pennsylvania disagrees. Franklin & Marshall polling says 62 percent of registered voters see the state as "off on the wrong track."

Corbett then touted job growth and falling unemployment rates as evidence of "progress" under his leadership.

This is fine unless you know 30 states have lower unemployment rates and each of the 11 largest states (we're sixth) added more jobs than Pennsylvania.

Current net jobs data from the U.S. Department of Labor show the state lost 11,400 jobs between November and December.

"Progress" also seems suspect in light of 2013 rankings by Forbes putting our state 36th in "growth prospects," a CNBC report saying we're 39th in states good for business, and consistently low job-creation numbers from every source but the Corbett campaign.

In fairness, this data was compiled before our "disappearing deficit."

Though Corbett budget secretary Charles Zogby in December projected about a $1 billion deficit, yesterday he announced it had vanished.

Poof. Magic.

Perhaps coincidently, Corbett's new spending is, wait for it, just about $1 billion.

When I ask Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi if Zogby is the greatest budget secretary in history, Pileggi pulls a straight face and says, "Well, we need to look at the revenue side. . . . The budget always changes by June."

The deficit disappearance relies on onetime fixes (Democrats say gimmicks) and a couple of maybes.

These include: transferring $225 million from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to help pay pensions; saving $300 million by reducing contributions to pension funds; new money from possible State Store reforms and/or lottery expansion; an iffy $125 million if the feds approve Corbett's proposed Medicaid overhaul.

So maybe we'll have no deficit, but we sure won't have a surplus.

This, despite the National Association of State Budget Officers projections that almost all states will see "fairly decent" surpluses this year.

Budget boss Zogby says Pennsylvania isn't among those states because of inherited problems from the prior administration: "The hole was just so big."

In other words, anybody with problems on the current state of affairs needs to speak with Ed Rendell.

Corbett's address had accompaniment.

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) members chanted and sang so loudly in the Rotunda that they could be heard in the House chamber. Among selections was the 1969 Steam song, "Kiss Him Goodbye."

In other words, this group is hoping this budget address is Corbett's last stand.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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