Corbett Strikes Out

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Commentary: Corbett strikes out on PA budget
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – As he signed his third state budget late Sunday evening, Gov. Tom Corbett was inevitably asked about his feelings after seeing so much of his major policy agenda go unfulfilled this spring.

The governor responded with a football metaphor.

OH FOR THREE: Corbett whiffed on all three major policy programs, and he grounded into a double play by agreeing to extend a business tax that should have been phased out.

"It’s the end of the first quarter," he said. "We have a long way to go."

He was referring to the fact the two-year legislative session is only about one quarter of the way to completion. It will not end until Nov. 30, 2014. But he’s not fooling anyone if he thinks major initiatives such as these won’t get harder to pass as the next round of elections creeps closer.

If we’re going to talk about sports metaphors, I’ve got one for the governor.

If this budget season were a baseball game and Corbett were the star player, he would have gone 0-for-3 while grounding into a double play. That’s four outs in three at-bats.

The 0-for-3 is the obvious part. A plan to privatize the state liquor stores failed in the state Senate, a $2 billion transportation infrastructure spending plan went down in the state House and Corbett’s push to reform the state’s financially troubled public pension plans never got much traction in either chamber.

But the governor ended up making an additional "out" by agreeing to slow the scheduled phase out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, which businesses pay on assets, during the final days of the budget session. The tax would have gone extinct Jan. 1, 2014, but it will now continue until 2016, when Corbett may no longer be in office.

The administration said the continuation of the business tax was necessary to fund pension obligations. But really it was only necessary to backfill pension payments that Corbett planned to underfund when he initially proposed his budget in February.

To be fair, not all the blame can be placed on Corbett’s shoulders. Republicans in the state House and state Senate get an equal share, for tying together issues such as liquor privatization and transportation, then turning them into a political ball of yarn that became so tangled it was impossible for either side to pull together the necessary votes.

But it all comes back to Corbett, who got the final say on the budget.

"It just didn’t get done," he said Sunday night when asked about all the missed opportunities of the budget session.

Such a blasé attitude is not what you would expect from a leader who just saw his three biggest policy goals go down in flames. Corbett could have, and should have, put his foot down and forced the Legislature to give up part of their summer holiday to return to Harrisburg.

He could have refused to sign the budget. He could have called a special session for liquor, transportation or pension reform (though not all three since special sessions are limited to single subjects). And even though special sessions are historically unproductive in Pennsylvania, it would have been an outward sign he was unwilling to back down.

A week earlier, Corbett said going 0-for-3 on those issues would be "unacceptable." By Sunday night he was shrugging his shoulders and saying, essentially, "so it goes."

Things certainly won’t get any easier.

"What was hard to do now becomes harder to do in the fall and becomes nearly impossible to do in 2014," state Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, said last week. He was talking specifically about pension reform, but he might as well have been talking about liquor and transportation, too. Lawmakers will be even more skittish about putting up a tough vote as their next election gets closer.

This session was Corbett’s chance to put his stamp on Pennsylvania political history. With his poll numbers in the tank, it may have been the last chance he will get.

Monday, Corbett’s re-election campaign sent an email touting the budget’s passage with a headline that read "Delivering Results."

I suppose that tested better than "Hey, We Tried."

Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.