HARRISBURG - It’s usually campaign season when politicians begin making statements that beg for facts to back them up.
But it was just this past week – 20 months away from the 2014 election – that Gov. Tom Corbett’s record on the economy was the subject of two head-scratching statements.
On Wednesday, Corbett told a Philadelphia radio interviewer, “We’ve added 109,000 private sector jobs in Pennsylvania in two years. That’s more than all the other states around us combined.”
The day before that, one of Corbett’s fiercest critics, Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said during an Appropriations Committee hearing that, since Corbett became governor in 2011, Pennsylvania’s “unemployment rate is higher. That’s a fact.”
Expect to hear a lot about jobs in Pennsylvania in the next two years: Corbett’s primary focus in office has been on improving the state’s economy.
But in those statements, both men apparently misspoke.
The number of private sector jobs in Pennsylvania’s six neighboring states rose by about 472,000 from December 2010 to December 2012, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal labor statistics.
That dwarfs Pennsylvania’s private sector job growth of about 95,000 during the same period (Corbett’s 109,000 statement referenced figures only through October 2012).
Pennsylvania didn’t even beat all of its neighbors in one-on-one comparisons. It lagged New York and Ohio in the overall private sector job growth during the two-year period, and it lagged four of them – Maryland, New Jersey, New York or Ohio – in the percentage growth of private sector jobs. It also lagged the nation in the percentage growth of private sector jobs during the period, labor statistics say.
Corbett’s press secretary, Kevin Harley, said later that he did not hear Corbett’s statement. But he said he assumed the governor’s mention of outpacing Pennsylvania’s neighbors referred to the state’s growth in its labor force, a federal government figure that estimates the number of people who are working or looking for work.
In that case, Corbett would have been right.
Corbett also can say that Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is lower than when he took office, having moved from 8.1 percent in December 2010 to 7.9 percent in December 2012.
A top aide to Hughes, Randy Albright, said Hughes probably meant to say that the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania has risen – 7.7 percent to 7.9 percent – since December 2011, even as it has dropped nationally.
Regardless, economists agree that governors are bit players amid the wider economic forces that determine short-term job growth.
“There’s the old saying that ‘Governors and mayors don’t manage the economy. They manage through the economy,”’ said Dan White, an economist with Moody’s Analytics in West Chester.
Pennsylvania recovered more quickly from the recession than other states because it did not experience as big a housing bubble. It also has been helped by a national resurgence of manufacturing and a drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation, Moody’s Analytics economist Ryan Sweet said.
But because of balanced budget rules, governors tend to have limited ability to stimulate the economy through spending decisions.
Still, budget-balancing cuts in education under Corbett — offsetting the federal government’s disappearing recession aid to states — led to the layoffs of thousands of teachers and other education professionals, said Mark Price, an economist with the labor-affiliated Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg.
Conversely, Corbett’s proposal to raise wholesale gas taxes to spend more on the state’s transportation systems beginning this summer might lead to thousands of new jobs, Price said.
Bucknell University economics professor Nancy White said a governor can create policies in an attempt to boost job growth, but such changes are typically of less importance than national industry trends.
“Most of the time governors do try to take credit for jobs growth, when in fact it’s the composition of industry within a state that matters,” White said. “If a state has a number of industries that are growing nationally, then growth in the state will reflect this.”
In any case, timing can be everything: Moody’s Analytics expects stronger national job growth in the next year or two.