Brian O'Neill: Corbett’s legislative attack is on the money

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Gov. Tom Corbett is like a guy who has been standing at the plate with the bases loaded for more than three years but can‘‍t drive anyone in.

That’‍s what a state worker told me the other day. I take his point. What’‍s more interesting now, though, is that Mr. Corbett is walking toward his teammates waving his bat at them.

I think I like that.

Mr. Corbett signed the $29.1 billion Pennsylvania budget that his fellow Republicans had pushed through the House and Senate without a single Democratic vote, but he had a surprise for them. He used his line-item veto to delete $65 million from the Legislature’‍s accounts.

Heh, heh. Gotta love anyone who can bunch up the shorts of the leaders of America‘‍s Largest Full-Time State Legislature. One might argue persuasively that this won’‍t help the governor get anything on his wish list past the legislative gendarmes, but it‘‍s not as if Mr. Corbett has been very good at that anyway.

This brazen move at least highlights how outrageous the costs of our oversized statehouse actually are. Because even after cutting $65 million from about $330 million in appropriations for the General Assembly and its support agencies, our Legislature has about $265 million budgeted to serve a 253-member body.

That works out to more than $1 million per lawmaker, and at the last audit a year ago the Legislature had $150 million in reserves on top of that. The governor had asked legislators during budget negotiatons to cut that surplus in half. When they wouldn’‍t, and also got nowhere on pension reform, Mr. Corbett wielded the ax himself.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and other Republican leaders responded with a joint statement: “While we share the desire to enact statewide pension reform, linking pension reform to punitive program cuts is not a successful strategy.‘‍’‍ (Translation; “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! That‘‍s our piggy bank you’‍re messing with!”)

As a governing strategy, this may not help the governor, but as a poltical strategy, it has promise. Mr. Corbett, the former attorney general who took down a slew of lawmakers in Bonusgate, strode into office promising reform. Well, now he’‍s at least acting like a reformer, telling our supersized statehouse to get out of its own way and accomplish something already.

”Pennsylvania‘‍s Legislature is a full-time legislature,’‍‘‍ Mr. Corbett said (somehow resisting the temptation to add “and still America’‍s largest!”). “The General Assembly left Harrisburg earlier this month with unfinished business. They need to come back and enact pension reform.‘‍’‍

Pensions are the kind of mundane subject that can get readers reaching for the NoDoz, but Mr. Corbett is taking to the stump arguing it’‍s a crisis that has already led to higher property taxes as school districts ante up to fund teachers‘‍ pensions. And this all goes back to moves the Legislature made more than a decade ago.

The administration’‍s narrative goes something like this: Back in 2001, Gov. Tom Ridge was eager to set up charter schools after his pitch for school vouchers went nowhere. To get those schools, the Ridge team let the lawmakers know the governor would be OK with increasing legislative pensions by 50 percent and teacher pensions by 25 percent.

So lawmakers from both parties voted overwhelmingly to enrich themselves and their lessers. The big lie was that it wouldn‘‍t cost taxpayers anything. Teachers would retire and be replaced by younger, less costly ones. A huge pension fund surplus would take care of the rest. Government seers were so confident, the state and school districts cut their contributions to the pension fund even as they made payouts more generous.

”It’‍s not a raid on taxpayer money,“ said Mike Manzo, spokesman for then-House Democratic Leader H. William DeWeese, describing this raid on taxpayer money.

Seven years later, the stock market crashed, pension investments cratered and the surplus vanished into the ether like a politician‘‍s promise.

Hence this dustup where alliances are shifting like an episode of ”Survivor,“ though it’‍s really just another episode of ”Our State Government Inaction.“

One thing this strategy does, though, is take away a case that might have been made against Democratic challenger Tom Wolf‘‍s effectiveness. Generally, when a governor of one party has to face a Legislature entirely controlled by the other party, the fear is gridlock. In Pennsylvania, we‘‍ve made a breakthrough. Republicans have managed gridlock all on their own.

 

 

 

 

 


Brian O’‍Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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