Corbett hopes budget prelude to political comeback
In his first two budgets, Gov. Tom Corbett slashed and slashed.
Critics say slashed and burned.
Faced with the disappearance of federal stimulus funding and having promised not to raise taxes, including not imposing a Marcellus Shale gas extraction tax, Corbett decided instead to cut spending on education, social services, economic development and a host of other programs.
The cuts angered many, a fury partly reflected in the governor's poor poll numbers. In the latest Franklin & Marshall College poll released just last week, Corbett's 26 percent job approval rating is the lowest for any sitting governor in the 20-year history of the poll.
This year, the year before Corbett must go before voters to earn a second term, the cuts are largely gone, replaced by flat funding or small increases such as the $90 million more for basic education funding for public schools and $8.5 million more for the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Corbett took the CHIP program hike and turned it into a photo opportunity Wednesday, the day after his budget address. With news photographers peeking in, the governor chatted up young children at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre.
"What do we have here?" the governor asked as he sat down with the kids and their drawings.
It was a first step toward the rehabilitation of Tom Corbett in the public eye.
"I can't think of a better place to do this," Corbett said as he began addressing the room. "What a good place to be able to communicate our message."
He wasn't necessarily talking about his upcoming makeover, but he could have been.
Democrats, whose candidates are weighing a run against him next year, say Corbett's budget is part of his makeover.
"In any year, if a governor wants to find the money to do the right thing, a governor can find the money to do the right thing," state Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn said. "In this year, a year before the election, where the governor's (poll) numbers are at record-breaking lows, he is trying to placate folks who are very upset with his abysmal leadership by a little intermittent gratification with a few minor streams of revenue."
This budget and his next one, which Corbett will announce a year from now, will frame his re-election, but the governor dismissed the notion that his latest spending plan is about politics.
"My response is the last two years we made the tough decisions that had to be done in order to get our spending under control," he told reporters after his appearance. "When you have the money, then you could put it in there. We didn't have it the last two years."
But even the choice to highlight increased CHIP funding could be read with a political overtone.
"It's also fitting that we're here because this is Gov. (Robert) Casey's stomping grounds up here in the northeast and the CHIP program was actually established under Gov. Casey," he said. "As we all know, the health of our children does matter."
Especially to moderate Democrats, whose support Corbett will need if he plans to win a second four-year term. Casey is an icon for moderate Democrats.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1.1 million voters, it does not help Corbett that three-fifths of Democrats (60 percent) have an unfavorable view of him; only about a fifth of people (21 percent) who consider themselves moderate view him favorably; and less than a quarter of independents (23 percent) have a favorable view, according to the latest F&M poll.
Even Republicans and conservatives struggle to like him with only about four in 10 (42 percent) of Republicans and between four and five in 10 (45 percent) conservatives having a favorable view.
"I see Pennsylvania turning the corner, maybe before other states are even turning it because we have a great deal of resources here in Pennsylvania," Corbett said, clearly hoping that he turns the corner with voters, too. "So that when I announced my budget yesterday, we made some decisions that we think we can actually spend more money the last few years and still stay within budget and not raise taxes."
Well, not exactly. Tax rates aren't going up, but tax revenues will rise to get more money for fixing roads and bridges because he is proposing to gradually lift the cap on the oil company franchise tax. Drivers will pay more for that, regardless of what the governor says. Otherwise, he couldn't claim it would raise $5.4 billion in new revenues.
Mr. Corbett is counting on people understanding that the pain of the last two years was necessary and that now that revenues are improving, he's trying to fix the roads and bridges they complain about and help reduce the waiting lists for services caused by his cuts.
"Everybody says it's not enough. I understand that," he said. "We'd love to have all the money in the world, but we don't. We have a finite amount of resources and an infinite amount of requests. There are more people that would like to see more money going into roads, going into welfare programs, going into a number of different programs. But we have to live within our means.
"With the work we're doing with our budget, we believe that we can start taking some of these people off the waiting lists. One of the worst things we can have in society, ... especially those who can't take care of themselves ... (is) to have them on waiting lists."
Even Republicans only lukewarmly embraced Corbett's new budget, especially its plan to provide temporary new money for early childhood education through the sale of the state liquor stores.
"I remind everybody the budget is the start of the process," he said in Wilkes-Barre.
He meant that a governor's budget just initiates the annual debate on how to spend state taxpayer dollars, but he could have been talking about his political comeback, too.