Corbett's hard stand on Pa. budget stirs anger

Gov. Corbett with the state budget documents he signed in his chambers Thursday. He also vetoed many items.
Gov. Corbett with the state budget documents he signed in his chambers Thursday. He also vetoed many items. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 14, 2014

HARRISBURG - In his first post-primary television ad, a stern Gov. Corbett tells would-be supporters that he "did not come to Harrisburg to make friends."

On Thursday, he boldfaced that point.

After pushing the 10-day deadline to take action on the legislature-approved state budget to the bitter end, Corbett came out swinging, accusing legislators of failing to act on the pension crisis and instead filling their own coffers with money for pet projects.

Behind closed doors he signed the $29 billion spending plan, but not before wielding his blue pen to do something no governor in at least the last 20 years dared to do - by line-item veto slashing $65 million in funding to run Senate and House operations.

Speaking from a lectern in the governor's Capitol reception room - a mural of William Penn behind him - a poised and passionate Corbett stood firm on his decision:

"They refused to use their budget reserves to help close the budget," he said. "And they filled the budget with discretionary spending."

To lawmakers, the legislative reserve account, which has ballooned to $153 million, is sacrosanct, established to keep the legislature functioning in the event of a standoff with the executive.

Corbett's blue-lining was seen as a risky move for the Republican incumbent, who was trailing his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, by more than 20 percentage points in the most recent polls.

Unable to advance his major agenda items - liquor privatization and a pension overhaul - through the General Assembly, Corbett resorted to hard-line tactics aimed at the GOP-controlled legislature: no bill to drive down pension costs, less dough for legislative coffers.

The veto action drew instantaneous ire from the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) told reporters it smacked of politics. Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said it appeared retaliatory and served only to give both parties something to unite around: "A feeling that the governor is not up to the job."

The "scorched-earth" approach to legislative relations singed even some of Corbett's natural allies in the legislature who represent his electoral base: the more conservative backbenchers.

Rep. Stephen Bloom (R., Cumberland) issued a news release saying that while he supported the governor's insistence on a pension fix, he was troubled that he chose to "lash out indiscriminately at the General Assembly."

"I'm concerned he might be needlessly alienating himself from even those of us who are fighting for reform and diminishing his ability to successfully negotiate critical issues on behalf of the hard-working taxpayers we represent," Bloom said.

Yet other Republicans deeply involved in Corbett's reelection campaign said he showed toughness and leadership and may have given himself an opening to claw his way back into the race against Wolf.

"Good stuff - it's about time," said one close supporter routinely briefed on campaign strategy. It could set up a contrast between the governor and a "do-nothing" legislature - in a sense, a reprise of his 2010 campaign theme when, after a long string of convictions of lawmakers in the "Bonusgate" cases as attorney general, Corbett promised to end business as usual in Harrisburg.

"It was probably the governor's best move, and it's worked for him before," one well-connected GOP strategist said. "The challenge now is that people will see him as part of the status quo."

Insiders say the governor's reelection campaign, which started a statewide ad blitz of more than $840,000 last week, plans to portray Wolf as unprepared to govern. On Friday, the first Corbett attack ad began to air, a spot that blames Wolf, who was state revenue secretary, for what Corbett says were high taxes and overspending by the Rendell administration.

In addition, Corbett's campaign began confronting Wolf for vagueness on pensions.

Asked about the issue during a Montgomery County campaign stop Friday, Wolf said he was open to a number of solutions to strengthen the state pension system, although he did not specify them. "We have to find a way to make up for a lack of employer contributions," he said, referring to skipped payments from state and local governments.

Overall, Wolf said, Corbett showed a lack of leadership by failing to take a more active role with lawmakers in shaping the budget.

Corbett pushed the House and Senate GOP leadership so far that in the aftermath, they almost seemed to be siding with Wolf, or at least reinforcing the Democrat's central argument.

"If you're running against your own party, it begs the question: Why aren't you leading it?" said Bill Green, a GOP strategist in Pittsburgh who is a Corbett supporter. "It reinforces the perception of not getting anything done over the last 31/2 years, and gives fodder to the Democrats."


aworden@phillynews.com

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Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.

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