Corbett May Get Most Budget Items On His Wish List

Angela Couloumbis
Philadelphia Inquirer

Gov. Corbett played a game of give and take throughout this year’s budget negotiations and appears to be walking away, for now, with most of the big-ticket items on his wish list: no new taxes, sharply reined-in spending, and no drama.The $27.15 billion budget deal struck late last week with the legislature is on the fast track to be approved before the deadline Thursday, a feat not accomplished for the last eight years.

The compromise plan is about 3 percent less than this year’s budget and would do what few elected officials and interest groups thought was politically prudent or possible: It would not raise a single tax or even impose a levy on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, which was championed by a growing number of legislators, not to mention the majority of Pennsylvania voters.

Though he had a lot of help from Republicans who control both legislative chambers, it is not a bad start for a governor in his first six months in office — particularly one with little experience in the hard-core policy and politics arena.

“Sure, he had to make some concessions, but if this sticks, I’d say he’s had a pretty successful spring,” said political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna. “It sends a message that he can get it done.”

To be sure, the budget agreement comes at a cost. No new revenue from higher taxes or fees has translated into steep cuts in most areas of state government.

And Corbett has had to compromise on that end.

In the budget he proposed in March, the governor advocated axing hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools and state-related universities, including Temple and Lincoln.

Republicans who control the legislature restored some of those cuts. For instance, Corbett had proposed slicing money for the state-related universities more than 50 percent. Now those schools would get a 19 percent cut.

Corbett also had called for chopping more than $1 billion, or 10 percent, for public schools. The budget deal would restore about $265 million of that, although the exact number was kept tightly under wraps late last week.

“That is still a moving target,” Rep. Bill Adolph Jr. (R., Delaware), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Friday afternoon. “We are trying to help out the poorer school districts at this point in time with whatever available funds we have.”

Corbett is not likely to get at least one major schools bill that he pushed to get done with the budget: the student tuition voucher bill, on which he campaigned. There appears to be little appetite in either chamber to rush through voucher legislation in the next four or five days.

And it is unclear whether Corbett was able to restore some of the cuts that House Republicans wanted to make to the Department of Public Welfare. GOP leaders in the House wanted to cut about $470 million from the department.

But Corbett likely will get his way on the question of whether to tax natural-gas extraction, beating back a strong push by Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) to impose a so-called impact fee on Marcellus Shale drillers.

Scarnati believed the impact fee should be considered together with the budget. Corbett did not, saying he wanted to wait for his Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee to issue its report on the matter.

The disagreement had the potential to muddle budget negotiations, but Scarnati’s office signaled Thursday that the issue was on hold.

“Going through a contentious battle on the issue without all parties working toward a final product is not, in his opinion, a worthwhile exercise,” said Drew Crompton, a top aid to Scarnati.

The General Assembly may also hand Corbett another win. Legislators are poised over the next few days to pass a bill that Corbett has said is necessary to ensure that school districts do not sharply increase taxes to offset the sting of dwindling state aid.

Thomas J. Gentzel, the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, called the move “mischief.”

“To try to fast-track this legislation without an adequate debate is, at the very least, very poor public policy,” he said.

The bill would make changes to Act 1, a 2006 law that says school-district tax increases above a state-set inflation rate must be placed before voters for approval. The act allows many exceptions, so only a few districts have had referendums.

The legislation would eliminate some or all of those exceptions, giving voters a much greater say. If all exceptions are eliminated, more than half of the districts in the Philadelphia area will have had to put their tax increases before voters this year.

As Corbett put it in his March budget address: “When you’re spending someone else’s money, it’s easier to say yes than no. . . . If school boards can’t say no, maybe the taxpayers will.”

Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford school board member and cochair of the Keystone State Education Coalition, made up of hundreds of school board members from around the state, said everything was up for grabs.

“What’s the saying? Nobody’s safe while the legislature is in session,” he said. “When it adjourns, I will breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, anything can happen.”