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I get excited, but let’s be honest, for most people a governor’s budget address is a MEGO moment. MEGO as in My Eyes Glaze Over.
Gov. Corbett’s people are trying to pump some life into Tuesday’s event by hiring an ex-Bush speechwriter to spruce up the governor’s speech while dropping hints that this year’s budget will have goodies for everyone.
As Budget Secretary Charles Zogby told the Inquirer: “We are at a pivot point where the governor’s hard work and tough decisions have really paid off. The state is in a better position.”
You might think from that statement that Corbett’s “hard work and tough decisions” during his first three years in office have led to a revival of the state’s economy and a concomitant increase in tax revenue—creating a prosperity dividend, if you will, that we can spend this year.
You might think that, but you would be wrong.
Tax revenues haven’t zoomed up; they are lagging behind expectations. The economy has not revived—not to pre-Great Recession levels. Instead of facing a surplus we can spend, the state is facing a deficit going into the new fiscal year, at a size yet to be determined.
Zogby, who played Dr. Doom during the first three years, has plastered on a happy face because politics dictates it. His boss, who faces re-election in November, still is sinking in the polls.
As the latest Franklin & Marshall poll detailed, Corbett’s numbers are abysmal, even among his natural constituency of Republicans (57 percent give him a fair/poor rating) and conservatives (54 percent, fair/poor).
F&M’s Terry Madonna says that Corbett needs a “transformational moment,” and the budget presents that opportunity. My view is that Corbett hasn’t got a scintilla of transformation in him. All he has is money that he can spread to salve the wounds he has created in the last three years.
His Big Problem is education. Almost singlehandedly, Corbett has turned public education, which usually registers near zero as a voter concern, and moved it up to the top of the list, right behind jobs and the economy.
So, look for soothing words about “the children are our future,” coupled with an attempt to claim the title of the Education Governor, and a couple of hundred million thrown into the various pots the state uses to dole out aid to local districts.
The problem is, while $300 million sounds like a lot, by the time it is divvied up among the state’s 505 school districts it turns into chump change. Not that local school officials will say no to any additional state aid, but it won’t do that much to ease their pain, especially in Philadelphia, the state’s dystopian educational basket case.
In fairness, even if Corbett had any transformational ideas, this is not the year for them to take flight. The governor is not the only one up for re-election. Half the state Senate and all 203 House members are as well.
The legislature, which has never been accused of being fast off the mark, settles into being a still life in election years. It wants no risks. It wants no controversy. It wants nothing to disturb the psyche of voters. Sshh.
Spend a prosperity dividend we really don’t have? Fine. We’ll help the governor spread around some money.
Raise taxes? Totally verboten. This does not bode well for Mayor Nutter’s request for the legislature to approve the legislation necessary for the city to impose a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to raise $60 million-plus for the schools. I thought Nutter’s plan was Dead on Arrival last year. I don’t know if you can be DOA² in life, but in politics you can.
Privatize the liquor system? Fuggedaboutit. The polls show that not many people care about it one way or the other, so why go out on a limb and potentially piss someone off?
Let it be.
Pension reform? This was on the governor’s “A” list and it remains so. So far, the legislature has shown broad bipartisan support for doing nothing on this issue. Alas, circumstances may force its hand this year. When it comes to the teachers’ pension fund, the state and local districts are obligated to make $300 million in additional payments this year. One way to ameliorate the situation would be to make genuine reform—change the pension formula to lower future obligations in a significant way.
Another way would be to make the problem go away, “collar” the payments at current levels and “save” the $300 million due. To be clear, collaring payments will do nothing—zero, zilch, nada—in lowering payments needed to stabilize the fund; it simply defers them to another day.
So, here is a question for your public policy final: Will the legislature (A) do the right thing and make a serious attempt to deal with the long-term deficit of the pension fund, or will it (B) once again kick the can down the road?
I would be remiss if I didn’t add another factor that leads to non-action: partisanship. The Democrats can smell Corbett’s weakness the way sharks can smell blood. If Corbett goes down in November, he could take the House or Senate with him. They will do nothing this year, except laugh at his problems.
But laugh quietly. Remember, the operative mode is Sshh.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the proposal was for a $3-a-pack tax on cigarettes. We regret the error.