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Tom Corbett's dilemma

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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HARRISBURG

Casual hallway talk at the Capitol asks this unanswered question: Will Gov. Tom Corbett hold up timely enactment of the state budget in an effort to leverage two of his priorities — liquor privatization and transportation revenue?

It's still not out of the question that a deal will be struck to get transportation and liquor before the June 30 deadline. But time is running out and getting both looks iffy. Lawmakers want timely budgets as well, so threatening to go past the deadline produces angst among them. That would be the idea behind holding up his budget signature.

Corbett, a Shaler Republican, has hinted he might play hardball, saying he always keeps the first two weeks in July open on his calendar.

The theory goes that Corbett can't go without a major win so he might be desperate.

The budget deadline is implied in the Constitution and set in state law. With poll numbers that one analyst this week called “dreadful,” Corbett can't afford to give up a core area of strength that he campaigned on — running the trains on time and keeping the state's fiscal house in order.

If he pushed past the deadline and still didn't get liquor privatization, transportation and another issue he's pushed — pension reform — he'd be in even worse shape. As one House Republican said privately, he'd be breaking a campaign promise on timely budgets to break yet another campaign promise against raising taxes.

Corbett would say lifting the wholesale cap on gas prices is a free-market move, not a gas tax hike. Few doubt, however, that it won't raise prices at the pump.

Using the budget to get his way is not Corbett's style. It was typical of Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, who let the budget deadline blow by every year for eight years to create an artificial crisis.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who writes the Crystal Ball newsletter, ranks Corbett as the most likely incumbent governor to be defeated for re-election next year.

Liquor is an issue Corbett should have pushed during his first or in a second term when he had more political capital.

“Pennsylvanians want privatization,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations consultant who has worked for Democrats. “It's not even an ideological issue.”

“The political reality is that the Republicans in charge in Harrisburg really can't afford to screw it up,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation. The public thinks “it should be the political equivalent of an unguarded layup,” he said.

There are other alternatives for Corbett. He could veto certain expenses until they get it done (a bit too Rendell-esque), call a special session in early July (lawmakers hate special sessions and would be miffed about vacation disruption) or call a special session for September, forcing legislators back to Harrisburg right after Labor Day rather than their typical late September start.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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