Criticism pours down as Corbett’s agenda stalls

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HARRISBURG – For months, insiders had been wagering on whether Gov. Tom Corbett could ram a very aggressive spring agenda through the Legislature in less than six months.


Few bet he would get everything, even from a Legislature run by fellow Republicans. Many seemed to believe he would get some things, but not others.


So when it all fell apart in a stunning pileup of personalities, politics and ideology, lawmakers were ready with a long list of mistakes the Corbett administration made in trying to shepherd its agenda through an often parochial Legislature.


Corbett bit off more than he could chew, some said. He shouldn’t have set a deadline of July 1 to get everything done with the budget. His administration didn’t advocate hard enough or early enough. It was ill-prepared. Many also circled back to a persistent criticism that has dogged Corbett since he crossed the street in January 2011 from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s office: He and his administration didn’t do enough to engage and win over lawmakers.


“You’ve gotta talk to people,” said Rep. Bill Keller, D-Philadelphia.


Corbett’s three priorities were: boosting funding for the state’s crumbling highways, rusting bridges and cash-strapped mass transit systems; overhauling the state’s two biggest public employee pension systems to cut long-term costs; and privatizing the state-controlled wine and liquor store system while liberalizing the state’s beer laws.


When he finally acknowledged Sunday night that he had gone 0 for 3, he professed no disappointment, and pointed to the handful of committee votes that had at least advanced legislation on his agenda. Corbett also insisted that work will continue on the things he sought.


The administration did everything it could have to make the case, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley insisted, saying it was very close to victory on two of the three measures, transportation and liquor.


“It was within 24 hours of the June 30 deadline,” he said.


Corbett’s pension proposal was the first to fall off the map. Top Republican lawmakers expressed concern right after Corbett proposed it in his Feb. 5 budget address, noting that it faced a serious constitutional challenge in the courts. The plan also stood to reduce the pensions of lawmakers, judges and a wide range of state and legislative employees.


“I would have thought that they would have had a lot of that work done prior to announcing in the budget address that this was going to be one of their priorities,” said Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, the House Republican point man on pension policy.


But projected costs and savings and legal arguments for the various provisions in the plan trickled out all spring – and the bill wasn’t even introduced in the Legislature until mid-May. It collapsed for good in late June when Republican lawmakers were confronted with brand-new and worrisome cost estimates for the last remaining provision they were willing to consider.


Trouble with transportation and liquor began even before Corbett announced his long-awaited proposals in the first weeks of 2013.


Senate Republicans already had made a transportation funding bill a top priority, but House Republican leaders, who had been leading a charge to privatize the state-controlled liquor and wine system, were already suggesting that some of their members would not support a transportation bill until a wine and liquor privatization bill had passed.


Thus, the two were indirectly linked and neither group showed much enthusiasm for the others’ pet issue. In the final hours before June 30, the Senate struggled to advance a wine and liquor bill, and the House searched for votes to advance a transportation bill.


With conservatives revolting against a fuel tax increase in the transportation bill, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, went seeking votes from Democrats who felt he had treated them shabbily since taking the job in January 2011.


Rep. Jesse White, D-Washington, said it was a mistake for House Republicans to switch out their own proposal for a bipartisan Senate-passed transportation bill “and somehow expect the Democrats to vote for a bill they weren’t going to vote for themselves.”


House Democratic leaders said Corbett and House Republican leaders refused to negotiate with them. Corbett was unable to persuade House conservatives or break the link between the two issues.


Some House Democrats also shied away from supporting what they viewed as a flawed House Republican transportation plan in fear that it would prompt Senate Republicans to pass a wine and liquor privatization bill, which they opposed.


Meanwhile, the stance of Senate Republican leaders hardened: They demanded a guarantee of House passage of their liquor bill and called the House Republican transportation bill inadequate.


Corbett largely stayed out of public view in the final days before appealing, in vain, to top Republican lawmakers in Sunday’s final hours – asking the House to accept a Senate liquor plan, and the Senate to accept a the House’s transportation plan. The agenda slides to the fall, when the conventional wisdom is that it is harder to win tough votes from lawmakers who are starting to think about re-election.


“What was hard to do now (will become) even harder to do this fall,” Grell said, “and almost impossible to do next year.”


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