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Corbett sends a signal

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett touched off an internal party war by vetoing one-fifth of the state Legislature's operating funds because the House and Senate hadn't approved pension reform.

The veto won't bring the Legislature to its knees. It still will live fat off its $153 million surplus. Still, his action was perceived by leaders as a slap in the face as he signed the rest of a no-tax-hike budget.

So why would Corbett anger fellow Republicans? A complex series of events over the past three and half years explains it — the Legislature has always been wary of Corbett, the former top state prosecutor who put many of their colleagues and former staffers in prison and campaigned against it in 2010. Corbett, who has acted like an attorney general while governor, brought much of this on himself by keeping his plans as secret as a grand jury indictment, remaining figuratively cloistered in the governor's office, failing to grab the reins of power. Perhaps because of its history, he was too willing to defer to the Legislature to come up with a plan rather than lead.

From the standpoint of Corbett supporters, the GOP-run Legislature has done very little for him and he owes them nothing. The Senate essentially ignored liquor store divestiture and the House couldn't round up the votes on school choice in 2012.

A key factor no one talks openly about is that Corbett doesn't have WAMs, “walking-around money.” They are discretionary grants governors and leaders use to “lubricate” the system and get votes. Corbett said he would get rid of WAMs. For the most part, he did. A mutant form of WAM-like grants — some called them earmarks — showed up in the fiscal code approved by both chambers. Corbett vetoed that designated spending as well as 20 percent of the Legislature's operating money.

The way GOP leaders reacted to his veto was a clear indication that top Republicans view Corbett as a goner in his November contest with Democrat challenger Tom Wolf.

Corbett clearly brought this specific budget predicament on himself when he said he wouldn't sign a state budget without pension and liquor reform. He got neither. If he signed the budget he'd look weak and if he vetoed it he'd have a mess on his hands. Signing it, but also going after the Legislature, was his best option.

It was a campaign statement. He's using pension reform to try to bring back his Republican base, said G. Terry Madonna, a longtime political analyst.

Corbett should have made a bolder statement and vetoed 90 percent of all legislative expenses. The backstory is the Legislature wouldn't give up any of its surplus in earlier budget talks. It's outrageous that it is sitting on a $153 million reserve, which has been used as a slush fund. Corbett's veto could potentially make it use almost half.

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

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