Allentown Morning Call
It took them 11 months, but Pennsylvanians are starting to warm up to Gov. Tom Corbett. Still, they’re having a hard time buying into his policies.
A new Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll finds that, for the first time since his inauguration in January, a clear majority of Pennsylvanians approve of Corbett. But they’re deeply divided over Corbett’s top proposals as he approaches his first anniversary in office:
• Split on a plan to allow parents in the state’s worst-performing schools to use tax dollars to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.
• Supportive of a direct tax on Pennsylvania’s booming Marcellus Shale natural gas industry (which the administration opposes). And they want to see control over major drilling decisions remain with local governments.
• Increasingly skeptical of a proposal to sell off Pennsylvania’s roughly 600 state-owned liquor stores, creating (in one proposal) more than 1,200 private licensees.
• Willing to pay more for drivers’ licenses and to register their cars — but not pay higher prices at the pump — if it means better roads and safer bridges.
The divides among voters reflect the policy challenges facing lawmakers as they struggle to reach agreement on school choice and the planned impact fee on natural gas drillers before a holiday recess.
Fifty-one percent of respondents to the poll of 447 adults say they approve of the job the Allegheny County Republican is doing as Pennsylvania’s 46th chief executive, compared to 30 percent who disapprove. Nineteen percent of respondents remain on the fence.
Credit the bounce in the former attorney general’s ratings to his handling of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal and earlier storms and hurricanes. The disasters and the shocking charges filed against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky play to Corbett’s strengths, Muhlenberg pollster Christopher Borick said.
“It has been strong territory for him and Pennsylvanians see him as more comfortable in those situations,” Borick said Thursday. Muhlenberg pollsters sampled voter opinion from Nov. 28 through Wednesday. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Corbett’s approval rating in the new poll is a marked difference from the way Pennsylvanians viewed him during the first half of his administration.
Most governors enjoy a honeymoon, but Corbett saw his ratings crater over deep budget cuts — particularly to public education — to try to close an estimated $4 billion budget deficit. Only 36 percent of respondents to a March Muhlenberg poll, conducted shortly after his first budget proposal, approved of the new governor.
Corbett’s “first half-year in office was dominated by budget cuts,” Borick noted. “In the second half, he has placed himself much more comfortably in situations where he has shown [leadership].”
Still, Corbett, the state’s former attorney general, faced questions about why so much time passed between Sandusky’s alleged offenses and his arrest on Nov. 5 following a disturbing grand jury report that included the charge that the onetime coach raped a young boy in a Penn State shower in 2002.
Corbett has said it took time to find the witnesses and to assemble the state’s case against Sandusky, who maintains his innocence.
Corbett has honored a campaign-season pledge to hold the line on taxes and made gains on such GOP-friendly issues as tort reform, but been largely stymied on promises of school choice and privatizing the state liquor stores.
State voters split, 50 percent to 44 percent, in their support for public school vouchers in the new poll. And while a clear majority, 56 percent, support using tax money to allow students to attend private and public schools, they are more sharply divided, 46 percent to 43 percent, in their support for allowing students to use tax dollars to attend religious schools.
A school-choice bill that includes vouchers, charter school reforms and the expansion of a tax credit for businesses that donate to qualified scholarship organizations has cleared the state Senate, but not the House. Majority Republicans and the administration said last week they were trying to reach an agreement before Christmas.
Seventy one percent of voters strongly or somewhat support a direct tax on the natural gas drillers take from the ground. Lawmakers and the administration hope for agreement on making drillers pay a local impact fee for their activities.
Two sticking points: Whether the state or county governments should impose the fee and whether the state should be able to override local rules on natural gas exploration. Corbett favors giving counties the call on the fee, but wants to give the state the right to preempt local zoning.
State voters in the new poll see it another way: 59 percent say they want their local governments to retain control over drilling within their borders. Just 26 percent say the state should make the call.
Fifty-eight percent of voters strongly or somewhat favor selling the liquor stores to help shore up the state’s bottom line. That number has fluctuated between 65 percent in September and 58 percent in March.
But the number of voters somewhat or strongly opposed to a sale has grown consistently from 20 percent to 31 percent during the same period, suggesting the message of opposition forces is starting to be felt.
A clear majority of voters, 57 percent, would be willing to pay higher drivers’ license and vehicle registration fees in exchange for better roads and bridges. But 62 percent would oppose hiking a tax on fuel distributors if it meant paying more at the pump. Both measures are included in an August report by an administration task force charged with finding $2.5 billion for transportation costs.
“Any time it comes to paying more at the pump,” Borick said, “voters are notoriously hesitant.”
SNAPSHOT OF STATE ISSUES
School vouchers for poor families
Support — 50%
Oppose — 44%
Sell state liquor stores
Support — 58%
Oppose — 31%
Higher fees for roads, bridges
Willing to pay more — 57%
Unwilling to pay more — 35%
Source: The Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll taken Nov. 28-Dec. 7 of 447 Pennsylvania adults. Margin or error plus/minus 5 percentage points.