Corbett's bad-options budget

Posted: June 19, 2014

I SUPPOSE Gov. Vulnerable could have a secret plan to dig out of a $1.4 (or more) billion hole and pass an on-time budget by June 30 to avoid looking inept while seeking re-election.

Gut the state museum, sell off its contents and turn it into a Harrisburg casino?

Sell the turnpike to NASCAR for four-lane, cross-state racing?

I don't know; something bold.

But given the quality of governing plans - secret or otherwise - so far shown during his tenure, it's more likely he'll continue painting himself into a political corner from which, to borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre, there really is no exit.

Can he escape?

Sure. In politics, as in life, all things are possible.

It's just that, at this stage, his degree of difficulty is high.

I mean 4 1/2-backward-somersaults-off-a-3-meter-springboard high.

If, for example, the budget is late and contains new taxes (a firm possibility), Tom Corbett's no-tax pledge is unarguably broken, his fiscal ideologies are abandoned and his touted record of signing spending plans on time is erased.

His budget secretary, Charles Zogby, says that even a Marcellus Shale tax now is possible despite years of Corbett's solid opposition to same.

Corbett approving a late budget with new taxes, especially on shale, could be viewed as admitting that his policies of less spending/more business-tax cuts are the reason Pennsylvania is among just 11 states facing revenue shortages.

If, on the other hand, he sticks to his avowed governing principles and signs a budget closing the gap with cuts in spending and no new revenue, he further punishes public education and those reliant on social services as he seeks statewide affirmation for a second four-year term.

A bind, no?

Yesterday, he held a rare Capitol news conference during which he said he's "very proud" of three previous on-time budgets but now wants to "get it done right, rather than quickly."

He added - I assume to show resolve - that his lieutenant governor, Jim Cawley, already canceled a planned family cruise (presumably for July) as Cawley stood nearby wearing a seersucker suit and white shoes, looking very much like he's already at sea.

Corbett stressed interest in getting the Legislature to pass liquor reform and pension reform, essentially blaming pension costs for much of the state's fiscal woes.

"I will not talk about revenue until we deal with cost-drivers," he said.

But the price of pensions alone did not put the state in its fiscal hole and any passable pension reform, however worthy and desirable, will not pull the state out of that hole.

That would take years. Corbett's got weeks.

And even if the Legislature reverses its patented inability to act in the interests (and, in the case of booze, the wishes) of taxpayers, new revenue and/or big cuts still are required to balance the budget.

Also, because the state Constitution mandates that revenue bills originate in the House, getting new taxes is a challenge.

That's because House GOP Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who's seeking support to become House speaker after Sam Smith retires this year, needs to corral tax votes from a very conservative caucus, many of whom are new enough to have never voted for taxes.

So the governor's options are not good.

Who's to blame?

Tough to blame President Obama when so many other states are doing much better; plus, Corbett's been in charge now for 3 1/2 years.

The Legislature's always a good target. But both chambers are run by members of Corbett's own party.

Just don't be shocked to see slot machines wheeled into the state museum or checkered flags showing up at turnpike terminus in Jersey or Ohio.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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