HARRISBURG – This month’s election results created a less friendly political landscape for Gov. Tom Corbett as he prepares for his 2014 campaign, with Democrats newly elected to attorney general and auditor general pledging to hold the Republican governor accountable and a narrower Senate GOP majority that could complicate his path to success.
Democrats cite their gains in Harrisburg as proof of public disenchantment with Corbett’s 22 months in office, though Republicans disagree.
Corbett has been mum on how he will tailor his policy pursuits to aid his re-election effort. In an online missive issued Tuesday, he offered a vision that hewed closely to his longstanding message on the economy and government.
He wants to help Pennsylvanians get jobs and he wants to deliver efficient, effective government, he said. But his message on education is evolving from the one he began with last year, when he was heavily critical of school boards and teachers’ unions and carried out more than $1 billion in budget-balancing cuts in aid to public schools and state-supported universities.
“We will make historic investments in education and we will always look for ways to give our students, the workforce the tools they need to succeed,” he said.
The fiscal challenges that the state is facing are arguably no less daunting as in 2011, when Corbett took office on a pledge not to raise taxes just as the federal government’s multi-year recession bailout of states was winding down and state tax collections were ailing. Tax collections are improving, but public employee pension obligations are skyrocketing, demand continues to rise for public welfare programs, more schools and cities are struggling and unemployment is higher.
Lawmakers expect the next two years to be dominated by efforts to find new sources of transportation funding and overhaul public pension plans. The Corbett administration also faces major decisions on what role it will play in the expansion of health care insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
David Patti, a Corbett supporter who is president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, said Corbett will need to assemble a broad coalition to back his efforts to cut pension costs and he will need to realize that lawmakers have reached their political limit in spending cuts.
“He has to come up with a creative budget that does the best he can to hold the line, but recognizing that the appetite for cutting is just about gone,” Patti said. “Complicating that is the dire issue with public pensions.”
Charles Gerow, a Republican strategist and lobbyist who is a supporter of Corbett’s, said Corbett should be forceful in trying to revive a bid to privatize the state-controlled liquor store system that failed in the House of Representatives. The public supports the concept, Gerow said, and it could yield money for public schools and transportation systems – two popular beneficiaries that Corbett has sustained considerable political damage for neglecting.
Corbett has yet to produce plans to privatize the state liquor stores or deal with the billions of dollars in backlogged repairs to the state’s roads and bridges. Tired of waiting, senators hope to introduce their own transportation funding plan in January, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery.
Inside the Capitol, Corbett may need to improve his political game. That could be crucial with a Senate majority that will shrink to 27-23 from 30-20. Republicans who control the Legislature gripe that they have been tasked with carrying Corbett’s water with little guidance from the governor or a staff that often didn’t have the policy know-how, public relations strategy or personal relationships to win over skeptical lawmakers.
In the meantime, the newly elected attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, has pledged to bulk up the office’s public corruption unit and investigate the Jerry Sandusky prosecution that began when Corbett was attorney general. Kane’s review seems sure to remind a large Penn State alumni base of its hard feelings over the ensuing firing of Joe Paterno and the resulting sanctions against the university and football team.
Eugene DePasquale, the incoming Democratic auditor general, plans to carry out audits that could hit sensitive spots for Corbett. That includes checking the effectiveness of the state’s ability to protect public water sources from pollution amid a boom in natural gas drilling that Corbett has championed. DePasquale also wants to audit Corbett’s grant, tax credit and loan programs to see if they are boosting hiring as promised. But DePasquale said he’s taking up the audits with an “open mind” and not to inflict damage on Corbett’s re-election chances.
“However that shakes out, so be it,” DePasquale said. “If they do things right at times, I’m going to say it. And if at times they do things wrong, I’m going to say it as well.”