Will Corbett stand up to the legislature on pensions?

How the governor plays this issue could decide the Nov. elections

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusual-250x300A wise attorney once told me, “never ask a question in court if you don’t know what the answer will be.”

It appears that Gov. Tom Corbett failed to adhere to that maxim when he hinted he would not sign the new $29.1 billion state budget passed by both houses of the legislature — unless the legislature took up his pension reform plan.

Instead of spurring the legislature to action — and whether or not you agree that the Corbett hybrid plan is a perfect solution, it is a reasonable attempt to eventually address the issue, even if it offers little to no short-term benefit — the House shuffled the bill off to a committee briefly and then took off for the holiday, seemingly way more interested in fireworks and hot dogs back home than the governor’s priorities. Maybe, they said, they’ll take up the bill in the fall and that the governor should be a good little, and maybe irrelevant, man and just sign the budget. 

Now Corbett faces a choice of looking like a wimp and essentially dooming himself to one-term in Harrisburg or the opportunity to redefine himself as a tough, no-nonsense leader willing to lay it out there to do what’s right.

Were I advising him, I’d tell him to veto the entire budget, tell the legislature he won’t sign a budget until they take action on pension reform and hold them to it, through a hot, sticky, painful summer in Harrisburg. As the state legislature as a whole is about as popular as ingrown toenails, actually standing up to it and forcing it to do the people’s work would earn Corbett a lot of points with voters — and he’d get the benefit of making progress toward solving an actual problem, somewhat of a lost skill in Harrisburg these days.

And it’s going to take such a grand gesture to change the rapidly growing narrative among legislative Republicans that Corbett is a lost cause and can be safely ignored, as appears to have happened this past week.

Obviously, not one Republican legislator will go on the record saying this — or a whole lot else, other than to say the budget they passed is a good one and they hope that Corbett will eventually sign it. But the actions speak louder than any comment would: his own party thinks Corbett no longer matters.

It also explains the budget document — a clear and somewhat dicey attempt to keep the budget down in anticipation of a Gov. Tom Wolf looking to raise taxes in 2015, likely at minimum, on shale gas extraction taxes and some forms of tobacco, and positioning the GOP legislature in the strongest negotiating position, albeit one that could still cost Republicans a number of seats in the fall.

From here, it seems like a risky play — beyond openly defying a governor of their own party — and gives Democratic candidates a pretty strong cudgel:

“Sen. (John) Rafferty (R-44) has once again passed a budget that prioritizes political convenience over the well-being of Pennsylvania’s working families,” Chester County Commissioner and state Senate Candidate, Kathi Cozzone, said. “Once again, Republicans in the legislature, led by Gov. Corbett, have passed a budget that ignores practical revenue sources like Medicaid Expansion and an extraction tax, in favor of one-time revenue that will only lead to a larger deficit down the road.

“I know that this isn’t how we balance a budget in the county, and this isn’t the right way to balance the budget in Harrisburg. We need real leaders who care more about their constituents and the future of Pennsylvania than they do about political convenience.”

Ow. And get used to hearing more and more of that in southeast Pennsylvania legislative races.

Making it worse, Republicans may be on the wrong end of a turnout wave, especially in suburban Philadelphia.

There seem to be some rumblings of issues that could actually spark off-year Democratic voter turn out, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling really seems to have touched a nerve on the left, an issue that many in the GOP would be wise not to underestimate. There seems also to be a groundswell of support for improving school funding in the southeast, as folks in Philadelphia seem to be getting traction in activating their Democrat or Democrat-leading neighbors in the surrounding suburban counties, as they battle to fund their school district.

Lastly, if the legislature and the polls (another poll, this one from Franklin & Marshall this week shows Corbett down 22% to Wolf) show a hopeless race, it seems likely that GOP turnout will take a big hit, hurting down-ballot candidates for the legislature.

What Corbett decides in the next couple of days could well decide the fall election. What he’ll do is anyone’s guess, of course.

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