Corbett Succeeds On Fiscal Priorities

Brad Bumsted
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Even some Democrats agree that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett delivered on his campaign promises to slash state spending without raising taxes and he helped enact an on-time state budget.

The $27.15 billion budget he signed on Thursday night came in under the maximum state spending Corbett would allow — that is, $1.2 billion less than the 2010-11 budget — and the 4.1 percent cut that lawmakers approved was the largest percentage reduction since at least 1970, according to the Governor’s Budget Office.

“I’m a Democrat, but I believe we’ve got to give him grudging praise,” said Anthony May, former top aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey. “He did what he said he was going to do.”

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, rejected Corbett’s fiscal priorities but agrees the governor accomplished what he promised.

“We’ll find out if that’s what people really wanted at the end of the day,” Frankel said. The telling point, said May, will be 2012 elections for House and Senate seats.

Lawmakers left the Capitol for summer recess, giving Corbett a chance to reflect on his first 5 1/2 months in office. He views his efforts to impose fiscal discipline and pass certain legislation as “extremely successful,” said Kevin Harley, his press secretary. Corbett did not get approval of all of his legislative priorities, notably tuition vouchers for school choice, but he intends to press that issue this fall, Harley said.

“You have to say he hit a home run,” said GOP consultant Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg. “It may not be a Bill Mazeroski bottom-of-the-ninth homer, but it went over the left field wall.”

Corbett caused the General Assembly and Pennsylvanians “to rethink the budget process,” in part because of the whopping deficit, Gerow said.

Democrats maintain the budget cuts will hurt welfare recipients, disabled individuals, senior citizens, public school and college students and their parents.

In response, House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, said: “The sky is falling, the world is coming to an end, and yes, the world of uncontrollable spending is finally over.”

The governor worked with the first GOP-controlled House and Senate since 2006. He landed approval of lawsuit reform and, late this week, pushed through passage of school property tax controls with the budget. The Legislature delayed a vote on the tuition vouchers he favored and never introduced a bill for his signature plan to privatize state liquor stores.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said selling the state stores will become the priority when lawmakers return to session in November.

Even before Corbett became governor with a pledge to “change the culture” in Harrisburg, lawmakers had set changes in motion. As House and Senate leaders quietly made changes during his first six months in office — such as agreeing to put $50 million of a $180 million legislative surplus toward budget needs and to document overnight stays when collecting $158 per diems — Corbett said little publicly about legislative reform.

By refusing to include discretionary grants for lawmakers, “I tied my hands behind my back, compared to past administrations,” Corbett said in a post-budget news conference, a clear reference to no offers of so-called WAMs, or walking-around money, in exchange for yes votes on the budget.

“I did not offer one dollar, point blank,” Corbett said. “I believe there are no WAMs, as we knew them in the past, in this budget.”

Democrats claim that redefining who pays damages in civil lawsuits will come at the expense of victims. Welfare changes that give Corbett “czarlike discretion” to cut welfare spending will hurt recipients, Frankel said.

Mike Race, a Public Welfare Department spokesman, said few critics acknowledge that the budget increases the state’s commitment to welfare, while overall spending decreases less than a fraction of a percent. Officials will make changes by working with lawmakers and “stakeholders,” Race said.

On Thursday, as the deadline to pass a budget loomed, Corbett threatened not to sign it unless lawmakers sent him a bill that gives voters greater control over school property taxes. The law, which he signed that night, requires school boards to submit to voters property tax increases above the rate of inflation. The law reduces 13 exemptions to three: exempting schools that need extra money to pay off grandfathered debt or fulfilling special education or pension obligations.

Whether the requirement for more referendums actually will curb school property tax increases is uncertain, given an $818 million cut for K-12 education.

Polls in legislative districts show 70 percent of voters equate budget cuts in public education with higher taxes, said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research in Harrisburg.

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