Gov. Tom Corbett tried to frame the terms of his re-election debate as jobs versus taxes Wednesday in a Washington County appearance with Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The two Republican governors walked into a tent in a parking lot in the sprawling Southpointe complex moments after his administration acted to defuse a potentially volatile social issue in announcing that it would not appeal a federal court ruling that struck down the state's Defense of Marriage Act, a measure that Mr. Corbett had strongly defended previously. Mr. Corbett turned aside repeated questions on the rationale for his decision, referring reporters to the statement.
Instead, on a makeshift stage filled with Marcellus Shale workers in hard hats and hi-vis jackets, Mr. Corbett boasted of the state's declining unemployment rate and contended that his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, would jeopardize job growth through his support of new taxes. Mr. Perry, dressed in black and looking noticeably thinner than he did in his presidential bid two years ago, praised Mr. Corbett's record on energy issues and jobs.
"It's pretty much stark in my opinion,'' Mr. Perry said. "This governor understands how to attract jobs, how to attract wealth, and his opponent wants to raise taxes. And if you want less of something, tax it more, that is an old piece of wisdom that is true.''
Mr. Corbett tried to portray the York businessman as a threat to the expansion of the state's Marcellus Shale drilling, alluding to the Democrat's proposal to impose a 5 percent severance tax on the value of gas production. That's a levy similar to those imposed by most other gas producing states, including Texas. Mr. Corbett has argued, however, that most of those states do not tax corporations or personal income at the same rate as Pennsylvania.
He called the opponent who has led him in early polling trial heats, "a blast from the past.''
"He was in the [Rendell] administration as secretary of revenue,'' he said. "He was there at that time and said we need to spend more money. ... He wants to tax this industry more. I think you pay a lot of taxes already.''
"And you pay an impact fee,'' he said, and turning to his GOP colleague, "Governor, you don't have an impact fee in Texas do you?''
Mr. Wolf has said that he would use the revenue from a severance tax for education and to replace the funds local governments currently receive from the impact fee enacted under Mr. Corbett.
Continuing his critique of the Democrat who had just won his party's nomination in a landslide, he said, "He wants to grow government. ... He wants to increase the personal income tax.''
Mr. Wolf has called for a change in the structure of the state's personal income tax designed to make it more progressive. While he has not spelled out the specific details, he says he would craft a significant personal exemption that would exclude a flat portion of income from taxation. The exemption would be worth more, proportionally to lower income taxpayers, while a larger share of higher incomes would be subject to a new tax rate.
In theory, at least, that could mean no tax liability for those at the lower end of the income scale, little change or a slight reduction for those in the middle, and higher payments for the affluent. That, at any rate, is the intent, but until the details are specified, it's impossible to know how it would work in practice.
The Wolf campaign responded to the governor's statement saying, "Under Tom Corbett, the middle class has been unfairly burdened by tax increases. Tom Wolf wants to make the system more fair while implementing a responsible extraction tax that will help fund schools.
"Tom's personal income tax plan would make the system more progressive so middle class families get a tax break.''
In contrast to Mr. Corbett's focus on traditional GOP tax and spending critiques, the Wolf campaign had turned its attention earlier to the gay marriage issue. In a statement, they welcomed the governor's retreat on the federal case, but faulted him for defending the law in the first place.
The Democratic campaign maintained that it was "unfortunate that he devoted time and state resources to defend an indefensible policy. While today's decision is correct, it is clear that we need a governor who will make equality a priority, not an afterthought."
Whatever the legal rationale, the administration's gay marriage reversal has the practical effect of muting a dispute on a social issue disagreement between the governor and Mr. Wolf. In a television appearance earlier this year, while the case was still being litigated, Mr. Corbett said that gay marriage could be compared to marriage between a brother and a sister.
The comment was immediately seized upon by his opponents. The governor's campaign advisers can't help but hope that the elimination of the court case turns removes an occasion to replay that video.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.