By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — After enduring the lean years of the great recession, Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to “build a stronger Pennsylvania” through a budget proposal that goes another year without a tax increase and focuses on education, jobs and health care — among the topics of greatest concern to voters.
“Things are coming together,” Corbett said. “All around us are the hopeful signs of a stronger Pennsylvania.”
Democrats immediately fired back that three years of Corbett’s policies have decimated Pennsylvania and quickly accused the Republican governor of putting forth a “campaign budget” filled with more than $1 billion in “gimmicks” to get through another year.
“We got a political speech instead of a budget address today,” said state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne.
CAMPAIGN SPENDING: With his re-election hopes still sagging, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett presented a budget plan that will likely play a big role in this year’s election.
Neither Corbett’s campaign-trail, $29.4 billion spending plan nor Democrats’ quick pounce on it should be unexpected, considering the governor is fighting for re-election while seven Democrats and a long-shot Republican challenger line up for the chance to send him packing.
Corbett anticipates spending 3.3 percent more than last year, with Budget Secretary Charles Zogby pointing to an anticipated 4 percent revenue boost to help erase a deficit projected to be as high as $1.4 billion in December.
Beyond that sunny outlook, Corbett wants to net $170 million in pension savings and another $150 million by reforming Pennsylvania’s unclaimed property laws, a move that Senate Democrats have also suggested.
As expected, Corbett moved to shore up education funding, a topic that has dogged him since his first year in office.
Democrats argue Corbett slashed school funding by $1 billion in his first budget, while the administration has countered by saying the state propped up education funding with federal stimulus money that eventually ran out. Since then, state funding for basic education has increased every year, but hasn’t accounted for all the lost stimulus money.
The complicated explanation hasn’t resonated among the masses, and Democrats weren’t convinced Tuesday even after Corbett announced he was increasing funding for early, basic and post-secondary education by $387 million.
Part of that stemmed from Corbett’s decision to keep the basic education funding line flat at $5.2 billion, choosing instead to push $240 million of new funding into his Ready to Learn block grant.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, was disappointed with the level of funding.
“It leaves our school kids behind,” he said.
In another move sure to anger his critics, Corbett also wants to continue to phase out the capital stock and franchise tax to help spur job growth. And he has plans to invest $450 million in job training to improve the workforce, he said.
Corbett also continued his push for a waiver from federal Medicaid expansion, touting instead his own Healthy PA plan. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, called it the “right middle-ground, common-sense approach,” but it’s another move that has rankled Democrats who say the governor’s choice has left half a million people without health coverage.
Before criticism streamed from the other side of the aisle, Corbett used the address to focus on the positive. He pointed to three straight years of passing a balanced budget on time, a statewide unemployment rate that’s below 7 percent for the first time in five years and a booming natural gas industry.
Corbett also referred to the bi-partisan effort to fund transportation improvements that passed late last year, suggesting a further desire to work with Democratic lawmakers.
“We have accomplished this and more because in our debates, we haven’t let ‘No’ be anyone’s final answer. We stay at it until the work is done,” Corbett said. “You could call this the practical way of governing. You could call this the bipartisan way. I like to think of it as the Pennsylvania way, defined at its best by honesty, fair dealing and the shared values of the people that we serve.”
Corbett also mentioned the “unfinished business” of reforming the state’s liquor stores after earlier privatization efforts failed and the need to enact pension reform as costs continue to escalate.
The budget announcement carried great political weight for Corbett, who is clinging to re-election hopes after a recent Franklin & Marshall College Poll found just 23 percent of voters believe Corbett deserves a second term.
Trying to avoid becoming the first governor to fail to win a second term since re-election was allowed starting in 1970, Corbett embarked on a mini good-will tour the past few weeks, previewing smaller budget priorities that snared some positive headlines when introduced outside the overall budget.
Perhaps a nod to the high political stakes, Corbett even went as far as using campaign funds to hire a speechwriter that worked for former President George W. Bush to help him hone his budget address. The state Democratic Party blasted the tactic as a “desperate political move.”
Even Corbett didn’t discount the fact a politically charged year could have an impact.
“This being an election year, I suppose it’s in the realm of possibility that a few disagreements might come into the picture again,” he said. “It just could happen. But so far as the budget of this commonwealth is concerned, our business is in the here and now.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
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