Gov. Corbett sees reason for optimism
HARRISBURG -- Both Gov. Tom Corbett and the agenda he has been pushing in recent days look a little unfamiliar to those who have been watching the prosecutor-turned-politician for the past few years.
He's out in public -- and in advance of his third state budget speech Tuesday, he's talking about boosting funding.
The Republican is laying visible groundwork for his proposals, inviting reporters to the governor's residence in Harrisburg to talk about pension reform and chatting up editorial board members in Philadelphia.
While he delayed unveiling how he plans to find nearly $2 billion in new transportation infrastructure funding until Tuesday's remarks, he outlined an aggressive plan for shifting the sales of wine and spirits from public to private hands and then promptly began stumping for that plan across the state.
And he's adopted the approach of past governors of trickling out some funding details prior to the budget address -- boasting of more money to help those with intellectual disabilities, for children without health insurance, for training more state troopers, and even hinting at an increase for public schools.
It's no longer the fiscal "day of reckoning" that he declared weeks after taking office in 2011, or a day that again required a "lean and demanding" approach as he described last February.
"I view it compared to what we've had to do in the past few years as showing some optimism, showing some optimism in the future of Pennsylvania because of the tough decisions that we've had to make the past two years," Mr. Corbett said at a recent event in Hershey.
His administration says the publicity blitz isn't a dramatic change in its public-relations approach. It argues that he did more events last year than media-friendly Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell did in his second year.
"I think he's done it more so in the last couple of months, and that's been noticed," said Charles Zogby, the administration's budget secretary.
Still, there appears to be consensus that being visible and proactive is essential if Mr. Corbett wants to accomplish the meaty issues on his agenda: reforming underfunded retirement plans for state workers and school employees; getting Pennsylvania out of the business of selling alcohol; and approving billions of dollars in new annual revenues to pay for road and bridge repairs and mass transit.
State lawmakers have been talking about transportation funding as an urgent issue for several years, particularly after the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission issued its recommendations in 2011.
Several top Republicans expressed some concerns last week in advance of Mr. Corbett's proposals on liquor privatization and pension reform. They said communication and leadership -- inside and outside the state Capitol -- will be critical.
"Those are especially the types of issues that require, from the governor's office, a certain amount of public leadership, not strictly just in this building," said Republican House Speaker Sam Smith, suggesting that the governor's weak recent poll numbers may be primarily a product of poor self-promotion. "It's helping to convey the message of what's wrong, why are fixing it, how do we propose to fix it."
Feeling heat from bad polls?
In the Quinnipiac University poll released last week, a majority of Pennsylvania voters said they do not believe Mr. Corbett deserves to be re-elected. Thirty-six percent said they approve of the job he is doing as governor, with the Republican showing tepid support across demographic categories.
Looking at those numbers, some observers say Mr. Corbett's public push on big-ticket items and accessibility is a no-brainer.
"How many different ways can you spell re-election?" quipped political scientist G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Mr. Madonna said the activity shows that Mr. Corbett, who will be back on the ballot next year, "understands it's necessary to gain some more legislative accomplishments" and that he'll need an engaged public to help him engage the Legislature.
Mr. Corbett's top advisers acknowledge that as well.
"The governor obviously has a fairly aggressive agenda, and it's going to take a public effort and work building coalitions on the outside to make the sales pitch on these important issues," said Brian Nutt, who ran Mr. Corbett's bids for attorney general and governor.
Asked whether this year's policy proposals mark a new chapter for him, Mr. Corbett agreed, pointing to the past two years of drastically reducing state spending as what will allow the state now to move ahead.
"The General Assembly works in two-year segments, don't they?" Mr. Corbett noted. "OK, well, we're working in two-year segments because we have to deal with the General Assembly."
Democrats say his openness so far has extended to some limited conversations with them on his transportation policy, but that he'll need to show them large-scale approach on that issue and others if his salesmanship will reap rewards among their caucus.
"If he's going to go in a different direction, how far is he going?" asked state Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "We need him to be bold in terms of reinvesting."
Big funding news on Tuesday
While his three days of events introducing and selling his liquor privatization plan generated attention, much of the focus this week will shift to the program funding figures that Mr. Corbett will announce Tuesday.
Education Secretary Ron Tomalis told reporters last week that he expects public school officials will be "pleased" with the amount of funding for districts. He also previewed a boost to programs focused on math and science education and an effort to reduce mandates on school districts.
The governor also has said he'll be introducing a school-safety initiative in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in December.
As for higher education, the dramatic cuts proposed in his first two budgets will not be repeated. University leaders from Pitt, Penn State and the State System of Higher Education stood with him Friday as he announced that state support will be maintained.
His budget speech also will bring the official announcement of his $1.9 billion transportation plan that a top Senate Democrat says will rely in large part on lifting a tax cap on wholesale fuel prices, as well as his approach for dealing with the state public pension systems that are underfunded by $44 billion.
Transportation and pension reform both bring hazards -- some will portray lifting the Oil Franchise cap as a tax hike forbidden under his campaign pledge, and potential changes to how current state employees accrue retirement benefits likely will result in a court battle with the unions -- but both are areas where escalating costs are creating growing concerns among lawmakers, business leaders and others.
Democrats and health-care advocates in particular also will be listening for whether Mr. Corbett indicates he will consider expanding the state Medicaid eligibility as outlined in the federal health-care law.
His administration has raised concerns about the potential cost, which supporters argue will mostly be covered by the federal government.
"We are now starting to see some of the fruits of the very difficult decisions that we had to make," Mr. Corbett told reporters recently regarding the upcoming budget. "Those decisions aren't completely over."
First Published February 3, 2013 12:00 am