Tom Corbett Achieves Much Of First-Year Agenda As Governor Of Pa.

Peter Jackson
Associated Press

Lawmakers, lobbyists and outside observers give the administration mixed marks overall.

Freshman Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett achieved much of his austerity agenda in the General Assembly this year, but his push to establish school vouchers collapsed and the clamor for imposing a levy on natural gas drilling showed no sign of letting up as lawmakers began their summer recess.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and outside observers give the administration mixed marks overall, but his first-year track record was strong — thanks to assists from the Republican majorities in both houses.

“In the end, he was very firm and decisive about what he wanted,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “We’ll wait to see how the voters react.”

Corbett made clear from the start that his No. 1 priority was balancing the state budget in the face of a projected $4 billion deficit, without violating his campaign vow not to increase taxes.

The $27.2 billion budget Corbett signed minutes before fiscal 2011-12 began Friday did just that.

As tweaked by GOP lawmakers, the budget reduces overall spending by about 3 percent while keeping state tax rates level.

Spending for public schools and higher education is being cut by more than $1 billion, while some business taxes are being reduced and state contributions to school employees’ pensions are being increased. The administration gained broad new authority to make major changes in a range of safety-net programs to offset hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the Department of Public Welfare.

The budget also contains a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars resulting from better-than-expected tax collections in 2010-11 that Corbett wanted to salt away for future needs.

Corbett threw his clout behind business groups’ years-old campaign for “fair-share” legislation limiting the liability for negligence of defendants in some civil court cases. He signed the bill into law Wednesday.

“He did pretty well … for a first year when you look at the size of the deficit,” said Gene Barr, a vice president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Also approved as part of the governor’s legislative program was a bill that will make it harder for school boards to raise taxes beyond the inflation rate without a referendum.

But the more divisive issue of school vouchers — using taxpayer money to send children to private schools or public schools outside their home districts — was left unresolved in a House and Senate stalemate.

The politically volatile issue of taxing the natural gas drilling boom in the state’s northern and western tiers generated more than a dozen bills, with most Democrats and many Republicans favoring some sort of levy, but the debate never reached the floor.

Corbett has said he would consider imposing a limited impact fee to help communities affected by the drilling, but not until his hand-picked study commission makes recommendations later this month.

Outside the Capitol, unlike some GOP governors in other states who noisily battled with public-employee unions, Corbett’s administration with little fanfare negotiated tentative four-year pacts with the state’s two largest unions, representing 55,000 of the 60,000 unionized state workers. They include a one-year wage freeze, benefit givebacks and a series of modest pay raises.

Corbett had a strong working relationship with the House Republicans, although some members fretted early on that he might concede too much on state spending or new taxes, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said Friday.

“We just wanted to make sure that he was going to hang tough, and he did,” said the Allegheny County lawmaker.

The governor’s harshest critics are Democratic legislators, who say they’ve been totally excluded from budget discussions.

“It’s an ugly budget that didn’t have to be that way,” said Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, the House minority leader.

Corbett “has to recognize that we’re a separate branch of government. Sometimes you get the attitude that he doesn’t think that’s the case,” Dermody said.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa echoed those complaints but said he believes the session was “a relationship-building experience for everyone.” He predicted growing bipartisanship as lawmakers tackle school vouchers and three issues that the administration is studying — a natural gas tax, transportation funding and the privatization of liquor and wine sales.

“The issues that we’ll be discussing in the fall … will end up requiring more openness and more cooperative conversations,” the Allegheny County Democrat said.

Sen. Jake Corman, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the governor was slow to respond to gestures of cooperation from both the House and Senate early in his tenure.

“Maybe because of the ‘bonusgate’ investigation there was a little less trust on his part,” the Centre County lawmaker said, referring to the ongoing probe into alleged legislative corruption that Corbett launched in 2007 while he was state attorney general. At any rate, Corman said, communications with the governor’s office have noticeably improved.

“It’s an evolving relationship. It’ll improve every day. I look for bigger and better things ahead,” he said.

David Patti, president and chief executive of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, said the administration will have its hands full when lawmakers return — not only with the issues Costa cited but in dealing with the growing number of financially distressed cities and how to pay off Pennsylvania’s nearly $4 billion unemployment compensation trust fund debt.