Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is suddenly concerned that most Pennsylvanians don’t like him. The former prosecutor faces a bid for re-election in 2014, and a poll last week pegged his approval rating at just 36 percent. It’s a basic math problem. And so on Tuesday, the governor who presided over massive cuts to education and the safety net proposed a budget that aims, for once, to avoid angering most Pennsylvanians. There is $90 million in new schools spending and a direly needed $5 billion over five years for roads and transit. The latter will be largely paid for by lifting a cap on taxes paid by gas distributors. But when it comes to the modest education-spending boost, Corbett’s newfound generosity includes a major caveat.
The funds won’t come through if legislators refuse to push new state and school employees into less-secure 401(k) retirement plans and lower payouts to current employees. The idea is that Democrats, who have largely stood against recent cuts, will be held responsible for blocking pension reform and thus depriving schools of funds. It’s a cynical move, and Corbett, who has presided over the pell-mell expansion of charter and voucher-like policies that cannibalize school funding, is likely overestimating its craftiness. Similarly, Corbett is proposing a $1 billion increase in education spending over four years — but only if the legislature agrees to privatize state liquor stores. Conveniently, this is a nonstarter for most Democrats (and many Republicans).
“We didn’t create our success by raising taxes,” Corbett said Tuesday. “We created it by expanding opportunities.” The success might be elusive, but the opportunism is clear. In 2010, spooked by Sam Rohrer’s Tea-Party-infused primary challenge, Corbett signed conservative Washington, D.C., power broker Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. He has since refused to impose a significant tax on the state’s natural-gas industry or to block companies from exploiting costly tax loopholes in Delaware. But the political center of gravity has slipped out from under the governor’s feet, and he is now tasked to square a political circle.
Corbett, famously caricatured by the Daily News as Pennsylvania’s Tin Man, made a laudable proposal to spend $20 million to reduce the waiting list for services for people with intellectual disabilities. But he also said he’d reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to 613,000 uninsured adults in the state. Last November’s election marked Pennsylvania’s clear rejection of the Tea Party agenda. He fails to understand this reality at his political peril.
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