Gov. Tom Corbett is planning to stand by his pledge not to increase taxes in Pennsylvania, even as he and national Republicans look for minor loopholes to get around it.
Corbett said he will honor the promise, even as Pennsylvania faces a budget crunch in 2013.
“I made a pledge; I’m going to keep the pledge,” Corbett told a gathering of reporters Thursday at his office in the state Capitol.
Corbett signed the no-tax pledge during the 2010 gubernatorial primary after his opponent did the same. The pledge became a central part of his successful campaign for governor that fall, and has apparently remained central to his policy decisions during his first two years in office.
But since this year’s election, an interesting subplot in the nation’s capital has been how lawmakers who signed the so-called “no-tax pledge” are handling the obligation to oppose tax increases as the nation hurdles toward the “fiscal cliff.”
Some Republican congressmen in recent days have publicly stated their willingness to break the pledge to make a deal with Democrats, which would include federal spending cuts and some tax increases.
The pledge — properly known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge — is the brainchild of conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Though it has been around since 1986, the pledge rose to national prominence in 2010, when Republicans around the country signed on to gin up populist support during the tea party wave election that swept the GOP to victory in several gubernatorial races — including Pennsylvania — and gave the party control of the U.S. House.
“You can’t separate the pledge from that moment in history,” Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College, said of the role Norquist’s pledge played in the GOP wave of 2010.
Nationally, and in Pennsylvania, Democrats have derided the pledge as handcuffing Republicans’ ability to compromise and provide leadership on key budgetary issues.
“It’s completely unrealistic, and it reflects a failure of leadership, to think that urgent needs in transportation, education and health care could be met without any growth in state revenues,” said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, in an email Friday.
Other opponents of the pledge have said Corbett’s opposition to tax increases has forced local governments and school boards to raise taxes instead. Corbett has argued he cannot control the spending decisions of local officials elected to make their own budgetary choices.
Despite the rhetoric, the fact is that Corbett has been committed to a mantra of “no new taxes” during his first two years — including his first budget, which closed a $4 billion deficit and was the first budget in more than 40 years to actually reduce the state’s overall spending total, though the end of the federal stimulus program was a key part of that achievement.
During a lengthy battle with lawmakers over the creation of a comprehensive natural gas drilling policy for the state, Corbett repeatedly turned aside calls — including some from within his own party — for the creation of a “severance tax” on the drilling industry.
Instead, the final package included a “fee” for the extraction of natural gas.
At the time, Norquist said the fee officially violated the “no-tax” pledge, but Corbett defended it as having the right balance between the industry and the state.
The administration took the same approach in its effort to go after online sales taxes from retailers such as Amazon — arguing that it is not a new tax or higher tax, but an effort to collect an existing tax going unpaid by some online retailers.
The 2013-14 budget may be the most challenging plan for Corbett — pension costs will skyrocket and demand for a transportation infrastructure package, which would probably cost billions of dollars, has increased.
Paying for those things, along with the rest of the existing $27.5 billion state budget, will not be easy if tax increases are off the table.
But when it comes to transportation, the governor could try to exploit a bit of a loophole in the “no-tax” pledge.
A commission created by Corbett in 2011 recommended uncapping a portion of the state’s gasoline tax, now applied on the first $1.25 of the wholesale price of gas.
With gas prices considerably higher, removing the cap would generate an estimated $1.3 billion and make the price at the pump jump by about 10 cents per gallon, according to the commission’s report.
Corbett indicated Thursday he would view uncapping the gas tax in the same manner as the Marcellus Shale fee and the online sales tax.