All eyes on Corbett as PA’s budget stalemate drags on

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Another day has passed, and Pennsylvania is still without a budget.

So far, services haven’t been affected, but the impasse has made for intriguing political theater as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett jousts with the Republican-controlled Legislature over pension reform.

The biggest remaining question is whether Corbett will sign the budget the General Assembly put on his desk hours before the June 30 deadline expired. He wants lawmakers to enact pension reform, but neither the Senate nor the House has mustered enough votes for a Corbett-backed proposal that would stack a 401(k)-style plan on a traditional pension.

It’s unclear how long Corbett’s holdout will last. He has until Friday to sign the budget, let it pass without his signature or veto it. His press secretary, Jay Pagni, did not return a message left Tuesday.

POWER PLAY: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett hasn’t signed the state budget in hopes of cajoling lawmakers to tackle pension reform. It hasn’t worked so far.

With Corbett trailing Democratic challenger Tom Wolf by 22 points in the latest Franklin & Marshall College poll, the governor needs to change the narrative of the campaign, said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at the school.

And, Madonna said, what’s better than a veto of the budget to show Corbett is serious about shifting the paradigm?

“He desperately needs something to take to the voters — a victory, a policy victory, a legislative victory,” Madonna said,

Corbett will have more to think about after Tuesday. The state Senate approved the fiscal code, a catch-all piece of legislation that essentially implements the budget. Whether Corbett signs it is anybody’s guess.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, urged Corbett to move. Scarnati released a statement Tuesday evening that parsed the governor’s previous statements that he wouldn’t consider new revenue to balance the budget without pension reform and changes to the way the state sells liquor.

“In light of his conditions, the budget presented to Governor Corbett by the General Assembly contains no new revenues,” Scarnati said, while encouraging the governor to sign the budget as it stands.

That didn’t happen Tuesday. Even though forcing lawmakers back to re-do the budget could be seen as a sign of leadership, some believe Corbett has already overreached in his quest for pension reform.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said last week that “folks are wed to what they believe” when it comes to the pension bill. He doesn’t think a special session would be successful in pushing along pension reform and said Corbett might have “overplayed” his cards by refusing to sign the budget.

Now, Corbett looks weak within his own party on the issue, Costa said.

“I think the plan backfired,” he said.

Leo Knepper, executive director of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative group that often backs upstart candidates, thinks Corbett’s team used poor strategy by failing to anticipate what would happen if the Legislature didn’t heed the call for pension reform.

Signing the budget now — without pension reform — would make Corbett look weak, Knepper said. Letting it pass without his signature would be “less humiliating,” Knepper said.

Knepper doesn’t know the exact impression that a veto might leave — though he does think it will irritate lawmakers who will have to cancel summer vacations to re-do the budget.

“It’s one of those damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don’t situations,” Knepper said.

The stalemate has been somewhat of an oddity, given that Republicans control the governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly. So why can’t Corbett get what he wants?

Madonna outlined a few reasons.

First, the House Republican caucus is “very badly divided” between more moderate GOP members from the eastern part of the state and the two- to three-dozen Tea Party types, Madonna said.

Then there are the ideological differences between the House and the Senate, which haven’t agreed on big-ticket items such as Medicaid expansion or liquor privatization, Madonna said.

Finally, “hyper-partisanship” has further muddled the budget process. In the past, lawmakers in the minority party were willing to put up leadership votes for a budget if they received something in return.

This year no Democratic lawmaker voted in favor of the budget. Madonna can’t recall that happening before.

Add those factors together, Madonna said, and “it’s not exactly a recipe to get something done.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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