HARRISBURG — A new statewide poll last week provides some context to understand the situation that’s left Pennsylvania without a completed state budget at the start of a new fiscal year.
The poll by Franklin and Marshall College found that 22 percent of voters selected education as the most important issue to them when considering whether to vote for Gov. Tom Corbett or Democratic challenger Tom Wolf for governor this fall. This was followed by 13 percent picking economy/jobs and then a range of other factors getting smaller percentages.
Corbett badly trails his challenger in this poll, getting support from 25 percent of voters compared to 47 percent for Wolf. Corbett’s job performance numbers remain low and a weak spot is his handling of education issues. Of those voters who give the governor a poor or fair rating, the reason given by the greatest percentage of them (27 percent) is education cuts and teacher evaluations.
The poll surveyed 502 registered voters between June 23 and June 29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
The general view is that Corbett gets blamed for deciding in 2011 not to maintain state school aid at the same level as when federal stimulus money was available in 2009 and 2010 to help states shore up their budgets. The result was a round of teacher layoffs, property tax hikes and program cuts by school districts as the stimulus money disappeared with no replacement revenue. Corbett inherited a budget deficit in 2011 and ran on a no-tax hike pledge, but that didn’t offset the local pain of the education cuts.
Since then education spending has been at the core of each budget debate. It explains why the issue of a state severance tax on natural gas production remains a live issue six years after the idea surfaced with the Marcellus Shale boom. Wolf calls for a severance tax to generate revenue for education.
Coinciding with Pennsylvania’s now chronic budget problems is skyrocketing public pension costs.
A state law enacted in 2010 prior to when Corbett took office established a schedule of increased financial contributions that both state government and school districts pay to support school district employee pensions. A similar arrangement exists for state government support for state employee pensions.
This law puts off the full reckoning of a generational spike in public pension costs until mid-century and attempts to correct years of pension underfunding in the previous decade.
Now school districts are being increasingly squeezed trying to make the pension payments required under this law.
Corbett has been trying for 18 months to win passage of legislation to reduce pension benefits for future state government and school district employees. There’s considerable debate over how much curbing benefits for new hires will bring immediate relief, but Corbett argues a start has to be made. He put down a gauntlet by withholding his signature on the $29.1 billion budget passed by lawmakers in order to apply leverage to get them to vote on a pension bill.
“Corbett needs some legislative victories badly,” said Terry Madonna, Ph.D., the Franklin and Marshall poll director. “He desperately needs a game changer.”
Whether the governor’s effort to force lawmakers to vote soon on pension legislation is that game changer remains to be seen. Their names are on the fall ballot too.
Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.United States - North America - Pennsylvania - Tom Corbett - Harrisburg - Wilkes-Barre