Corbett still honing relationship with Pa. legislators
December 2, 2012 10:00 AM
Gov. Tom Corbett described his relationship with the lawmakers as one that still is "learning, growing."
By Laura Olson Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- The state Capitol may be under one-party rule, but getting Republicans of differing ideological stripes to support his policy goals continues to be a challenge for Gov. Tom Corbett as he nears the midway point of his first term.
During extended interviews last week, Mr. Corbett described his relationship with the lawmakers as one that still is "learning, growing."
The notoriously tight-lipped prosecutor-turned-chief-executive says he is talking to legislators more, and even indicated that Democrats may be included in the closed-door budget process.
"There are some areas where we won't [agree]," Mr. Corbett said of the minority party. "I'd like to have a better relationship with them."
Democratic leaders said they would like to work more closely with the Corbett administration in the upcoming session, and noted that outreach efforts had somewhat improved during the governor's second year.
But they cautiously added that they are awaiting further signals that the governor is welcoming their participation in a substantive way.
"It's very important for all four caucuses and the administration to work together in a cooperative manner," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. "But it needs to be a meaningful discussion."
Getting on the same page
Mr. Corbett has encountered pushback from both sides of the legislative aisle since taking office in 2011. He recently told a KDKA-AM interviewer that getting Republicans all on the same page "is probably the most difficult job I've ever had to do."
He came into the governor's office after two consecutive terms as attorney general, during which his most-publicized cases involved indicting high-ranking lawmakers for using state resources for political campaigns.
For his legislative liaison, he brought with him the staffer who held that role in the attorney general's office. But lawmakers and staffers privately said they wanted more clarity from the governor, who was more comfortable behind the scenes than behind the bully pulpit.
Mr. Corbett said both he and lawmakers had to get to know each other and learn their styles, particularly given the outspoken nature of his predecessor. He expressed confusion at complaints of being inaccessible, saying that he's told lawmakers to pick up the phone.
"There's some adaptation on their part," he told reporters. "The leaders were used to Ed [Rendell], and you know, he called you in here to let you know what he thought ... I am not that kind of person. I will let them know what I think but in a polite way."
One significant change during his tenure, he said, was discontinuing the practice of using grant dollars -- known pejoratively as "walking-around money" or "WAMs" -- to secure votes.
The Republican campaigned on eliminating the practice, which Mr. Rendell described following his final state budget as "part of the arrangement" at the Legislature's insistence.
"WAMs were a pretty good tool in the tool belt for the last few governors to get pieces of legislation that made great sense but didn't have complete consensus from members of the Legislature," Mr. Corbett said. "You could convince them to vote for something that they really didn't want to, but they wanted whatever the WAM was.
"So have we been doing this with one hand tied behind our back a little bit?" he asked. "Yeah."
While the use of grant dollars in negotiations has been part of the way state government had operated for decades, Mr. Corbett's account may be "a modest exaggeration" of their importance, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"There are lots of things you can give legislative leaders in negotiations besides economic development dollars," said Mr. Madonna, who also noted the significant majorities in which Mr. Corbett can look for support. "It's his own party that he's negotiating with."
The governor said that in their post-WAM era, his administration has been "doing a lot of things in their districts" and working on improving communications.
"I think part of it too, frankly, it's taken me a while to learn how much they want to be with the governor," he said, adding that some lawmakers "really want to come in and get their picture taken with the governor."
Legislative Republicans said that without the use of grant incentives, legislation has passed based on persuasion.
"Everything that has been accomplished this past session has been because of legislative sponsors and leaders making principled arguments on why the legislation is necessary," House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said the governor may not have had grant dollars to offer, but he didn't attempt to sway them otherwise, either. "On the basic issues, there was no discussion," he said.
One new outreach effort, the governor said, will be bringing in lawmakers from both sides of the aisle for discussions before presenting his budget address.
"We're going to be bringing them in because I'm tired of I present a budget and everybody shoots at it," Mr. Corbett. "OK, well then why don't you tell me ahead of time?"
Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson said the caucus would find it "very healthy and positive" to be included earlier in the budget process.
The governor said he wants to "hear out" Democrats better and see if they can be persuaded to support more of his proposals, but also that he knows what they will tell him.
"They're going to want to spend more money. They're going to want to tax more," he said, adding that some Republicans also favor spending increases.
"And I think it's because they look at the increase in spending in the Rendell years," Mr. Corbett said. "When it's up like that, it is kind of hard to break that habit. But when the revenues aren't there, you have to break the habit."
Democrats replied that while they hope his interest in bipartisanship is genuine, his remark about their appetite for tax increases was off-putting. Mr. Dermody disputed it, arguing that several of their revenue-raising suggestions didn't require tax hikes.
"I hope he does want to work with us, but you have to wonder when he says, 'I already know what they're going to say,'" Mr. Dermody said. "We'll see."