HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent statement that he won’t renew his 2010 no-tax pledge signals a big departure from a policy that’s had a major impact on his tenure in office so far. The governor told Associated Press that he won’t redo the pledge promoted by Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group, as he seeks re-election to a second term. When Corbett signed the pledge as a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, the year of the tea party wave, he became the first major party nominee for governor in Pennsylvania to have put his name to such a pledge since they first started appearing in the 1970s. A number of state lawmakers have signed the pledge too. The pledge itself is simple: “I pledge to the taxpayers of the State of _______________ and to all the people of this state, that I will oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.” But the application of the pledge is more nuanced. ATR has placed some caveats and qualifiers on it. Such as an elected official wouldn’t violate the pledge if he or she backs a tax hike that’s offset by a tax cut of equal size. ATR considers implementing user fees paid only by those using a particular service as being outside the pledge. During the 2010 campaign, Corbett said he opposed hiking state fees. In any event, Corbett’s no-tax pledge has been a key factor determining public policy on such matters as natural gas drilling and transportation funding and education funding during the past 3½ years. During 2010, it appeared that Pennsylvania was going to enact a state severance tax on natural gas production. The leaders of the Democratic-controlled House at the time and the Republican-controlled Senate signaled as much in a statement of intent in the fiscal code law. Taking office in 2011, Corbett immediately scotched the severance tax talk and set the course for what became the impact fee law on gas drillers enacted a year later. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars collected in impact fee revenue, a severance tax remains a live issue with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf calling for one to fund public education. A number of GOP lawmakers have sponsored severance tax bills to generate revenue for public pension debt and other purposes. The $2.3 billion transportation funding package enacted last November is shaped by the pledge. It includes an increase in a state wholesale tax on oil companies that’s passed onto consumers coupled with a decrease in the state’s traditional gasoline tax. The package also increased motorist and vehicle fees. Corbett told the AP that he has kept the 2010 pledge as best as he can and avoided hikes on such broad-based levies as the state income tax and state sales tax during tough fiscal times. What’s unusual about the AP interview is that the gubernatorial campaign has been underway all year and this is apparently the first time Corbett was asked whether he would renew the pledge. Statewide voters appear more interested in education and schools than taxes this year, according to a poll released last week by Franklin & Marshall College. The poll found that 29 percent of voters selected education as the most important problem facing Pennsylvania compared to 10 percent for taxes. The poll surveyed 520 registered voters between Aug. 18 and Aug. 25 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. Robert Swift is Harrisburg Bureau Chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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