Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget strategy reduced state spending and avoided a difficult vote on a natural gas drilling fee, while setting himself up for a three-year run toward re-election, according to political analysts.
The consensus among political analysts is that Corbett accomplished most of his goals in the first half of the legislative session, including the passage of an on-time budget without a broad-based tax increase, which was at the center of his gubernatorial campaign this past fall. Though some other controversial issues — including school vouchers and a natural gas drilling impact fee — remain on hold, analysts said Corbett is well-positioned for the rest of his term.
Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said Corbett operated behind the scenes but ultimately won this budget battle, his first as the state’s chief executive.
“He wasn’t active in the process, but he was very firm in what he needed to sign the budget,” Madonna said. “He got a lot of what he wanted. I think he held firm, was very decisive and had leaders who hung in with him and made his primary objectives possible.”
Looking beyond this year’s budget battle, Corbett, a Republican, will have the time and money to make his case for a second term in office, thanks to lower state spending and saving most of the state’s unexpected $700 million revenue surplus from the most recent fiscal year, said Thomas Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.
“He can be generous with spending in the next three years due to increased revenue from a possible impact fee and the surplus from the Rainy Day Fund, while also saying he did not raise taxes,” Baldino said.
The budget fulfilled Corbett’s campaign promise not to raise taxes and was the first budget in at least 40 years to reduce the state’s general fund spending, which accounts for most of the state’s discretionary spending. The budget also did not include a natural gas drilling impact fee or severance tax, despite a strong push for one, even from some members of Corbett’s own party.
An impact fee is a duty that would be placed on natural gas companies to ease the financial burden local areas have incurred as a result of the industry’s presence. A severance tax is essentially the same thing, but uses a variable tax rate based on production volume and price.
Corbett repeatedly said throughout the legislative session that he would not sign a severance tax or impact fee into law before his Marcellus Shale Commission submits its final report later this month. Democrats and some Republicans wanted an impact fee in the budget.
Madonna said the commission was a politically savvy move for Corbett to make.
He’d made this pledge (to not raise taxes) and didn’t think the time was right for an impact fee,” said Madonna. “The commission will provide him the cover for a tax increase.”
According to a Quinnipiac poll in early June, 69 percent of voters support a tax on natural gas drilling companies, but 55 percent don’t favor a tax increase to help balance the budget.
The poll surveyed 1,300 registered voters in the state and had a margin of error of 2.7 percent.
The same poll showed Corbett with a 39 percent approval rating — nearly the same as when he took office in January — but his disapproval rating had climbed from 11 percent in February to 38 percent in June.
Somewhat surprisingly, nearly a quarter of those surveyed did not yet have an opinion of Corbett. And the state budget is unlikely to change that or significantly shift the battle lines that have been drawn, Baldino said.
“If you supported him going in, you think he did a good job,” Baldino said. “If not, you don’t think he did all that well.”