HARRISBURG – The governor’s annual budget address is traditionally when the state’s chief executive lays out priorities for the coming year, a speech that is scrutinized closely for what it says about the state’s direction.
Gov. Tom Corbett will have a lot at stake politically when he delivers his third budget address Feb. 5. By this time next year, the governor will probably find himself in the early stages of a re-election campaign, and he’d probably like a few major victories to show the state’s voters.
In recent weeks, the first-term Republican has provided numerous clues about what his budget address will contain.
In interviews and public appearances, Corbett has spoken of a desire to take on the state’s threatening pension obligations, expressed an intention to avoid school funding cuts and warned of the pressure from medical assistance and prison costs.
But he also has been doing more than talking. Earlier this month, he sued the NCAA over the Penn State sanctions, injecting himself into a politically charged issue. He just announced a deal to turn over management of the Pennsylvania Lottery to a British firm.
Corbett is expected to take the wraps off a major transportation infrastructure proposal in the coming days, including a higher wholesale tax on gasoline sales, and has been talking up a favorite idea, privatization of the state’s liquor stores.
On Thursday, The Philadelphia Inquirer said Corbett and his staff have been sending “strong signals” that the liquor privatization effort could allow beer and wine sales in convenience stores, groceries and other outlets. Under one possible scenario, private distributors now limited to selling cases of beer would be allowed to sell six packs as well as wine and liquor. Details of Corbett’s proposal are expected before the budget address, his spokesman told the newspaper.
Lawmakers have their own ideas about what should be a priority, of course, and for House Democrats, it is to improve the state’s jobs climate. The state’s jobless rate is lower than when Corbett took office but remains at nearly 8 percent, and his opponents are pointing fingers.
“Policies that place corporations above people, starve public schools and college and ignore urgent transportation and health care needs are not working for Pennsylvania,” said House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton. He said his caucus would push to restore education cuts and eliminate business tax breaks.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, also put jobs on his list in a recent speech about his 2013 priorities and said he hoped to improve the state’s ability to compete with foreign countries by improving “the tax climate” and keeping a lid on state spending.
His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Jay Costa of Allegheny County, said the state should do more with job creation programs, including tax credits, and help foster “end-use” development related to the Marcellus Shale natural gas production.
Costa also believes the state should be improving public education through block grants, tuition assistance and support for charter school costs for local districts. He also thinks the state’s financially troubled cities need attention.
“We have to recognize that we must make investments,” Costa said. “We cannot cut our way back to prosperity.”
One item that appears headed for swift action in the General Assembly is the set of recommendations issued in late November to improve state laws regarding child abuse prevention and investigation. A task force spent about a year studying the issue, which arose following the arrest of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges.
In the state House, that work gets under way Tuesday, when members of the task force will testify before members of the Judiciary and Children and Youth committees.
In Lancaster Wednesday, Corbett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he will outline a school safety effort, prompted by last month’s Connecticut elementary school shooting. Details are expected in his budget address, but the governor told the newspaper it would take money, and “we have some areas that we think we can find some money to go into that.”
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said his members are focusing on reducing the state’s debt and reforming debt programs, charter school funding changes and addressing liquor privatization and transportation.
A group of House Republicans also is studying public pensions, trying to develop a strategy.
“Basically,” Miskin said, “it’s Pennsylvania’s version of its own fiscal cliff.”