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Corbett: Gripes about transportation funding 'ballsy'

Gov. Tom Corbett defended his $27.1 billion budget proposal on Friday, calling Democrats who criticized him for not boosting transportation funding "ballsy" and the state's higher education system fiscally "flawed."

Corbett also said during a visit to Western Pennsylvania that officials put together a strong package in an effort to lure a massive petrochemical plant to the state.

Democrats didn't fix what has been called a transportation funding crisis when they controlled the House and had Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, in the governor's mansion, Corbett said. A special legislative session on transportation that was called during Rendell's last year in office produced no results, he said.

"For them to call on me and say, 'We need to fix this problem in the first 14, 13 months you're in office,' ... It's ballsy," Corbett said during a news conference at Calgon Carbon Corp. in Findlay, adding that efforts to close a $4.2 billion budget deficit last year dominated the early part of his first year in office.

Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, the Senate minority leader, blamed Republicans for torpedoing efforts near the end of Rendell's tenure to dedicate funding for transportation. He said there is bipartisan support now to get something done, but the governor has dragged his feet.

Corbett said Pennsylvania's transportation problems "didn't just get here."

Among problems, 23 percent of all state and locally owned bridges are structurally deficient, while 20 percent of Pennsylvania's state-maintained roads are in poor condition. Transit agencies face budget crunches, including Port Authority of Allegheny County, which receives most of its operational funding from Harrisburg and is considering a 35 percent service cut to help close a $64 million deficit.

Corbett's proposed transportation budget totals $5.67 billion, down 9 percent from this fiscal year. A commission Corbett appointed last year recommended ways to generate an added $2.7 billion annually for transportation within five years, but the governor has yet to offer legislative proposals.

Corbett said tough work lies ahead. The key question, he said, is, "Where is the Legislature going to be, particularly in an election year, when it comes time to make some very tough decisions?"

Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, the House minority leader, said in a letter to all House members that he plans to "highlight Gov. Corbett's inaction" by introducing legislation to rename PennDOT the "Department of Deferred Maintenance."

Also yesterday, Corbett defended his proposed $230 million cut for higher education. "I look at that as a percentage of their operating budget that could be cut," he said.

Corbett said the proposed cut to the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities amounts to a 3.8 percent cut in their overall operating expenses, while cuts to state-affiliated schools would amount to 2.1 percent at Pitt, 1.8 percent at Temple and 1.6 percent at Penn State.

"Why is it automatic that they raise their tuition• Why aren't they looking at controlling their costs?" Corbett asked. He also questioned how they train future workers, noting the state system, for example, graduated 12,000 teachers last year in a state with just 3,000 vacancies.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said the schools have shed a combined $230 million in expenses over the past decade, and they constantly evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and Pennsylvania's work force needs.

Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said in a statement that Corbett's math "masks the depth of the reduction" because he based it on the university's $1.94 billion operating budget -- even though $800 million comes from sources that stipulate it must be used for research.

Corbett said officials "are working hard behind the scenes to put together a very good package" to entice Royal Dutch Shell plc to build a petrochemical, or "cracker," plant that would take ethane from Marcellus shale gas and use it to make the basis for plastic products. It could cost up to $4 billion to build and employ hundreds.

Corbett declined to offer specifics, citing a confidentiality agreement.

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