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Corbett's last stand?

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By Terry Madonna & Michael Young
Monday, July 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It's a trite but true political aphorism: “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” meaning we tend to see things differently depending on what perspective we see them from.

If you're a Pennsylvania Republican, no matter where you “sit,” it's hard to see what Gov. Corbett did with the 2014-15 budget as anything but a divisive, last-gasp effort to change perceptions of his leadership.

Corbett, using most of his 10 days to sign or veto the budget, finally decided to do both. He signed it, but excluded about $72 million earmarked mostly for the Legislature using his line-item veto, known as “blue lining.”

Corbett did this to “encourage” the Legislature to return to Harrisburg to enact pension reform, his No.1 priority. Facing a daunting re-election challenge, he needed some accomplishments.

Still, he had choices. He could have signed the bill, which would have made him look weak in the face of defiance of his agenda; he could have let the budget become law without his signature, which would have made him look passive; or he could have “blue lined” the budget bill, cutting the legislative appropriation and alienating his remaining supporters in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

This last, worst choice was Corbett's choice. He chastised legislators for failing to give him the pension reform he seeks, while enraging many party leaders by gutting their own appropriation. This was a bold and aggressive move. In effect, he is declaring war on his own party.

It's preface to a political gunfight he seems certain to lose.

First, voters don't care that much about pension reform. They should but they don't. And increasingly they think Corbett cannot win re-election; he trails his Democrat challenger by more than 20 points.

Second, the Legislature probably will simply ignore Corbett. They can override his line-item veto with a two-thirds majority or they can live with the cuts, drawing on their ample “reserves” to see them through the rest of Corbett's term.

Third, the Republican majorities that run the Legislature don't need Corbett to retain control or to win in the fall.

Finally, the Legislature isn't going to pass any kind of pension reform this session even close to Corbett's proposals. The consensus isn't there; the votes are not there.

Corbett's dilemma is only partially self-inflicted. Certainly, his leadership style and political skills are not a good fit for the mud wrestling, arm-twisting brand of politics often practiced in Pennsylvania.

But the larger problem exists in the Legislature itself. House Republicans are split between a militant tea party group and traditional moderates from suburban areas. Moderate Republicans controlling the Senate clash with the more conservative House. Leadership is no longer able to get together, wheel and deal, and reach compromise on vital issues.

The Legislature has become dysfunctional and Corbett must deal with that reality. It's clear he can't do that.

More troubling is the growing suspicion no one else can, either.

Terry Madonna is a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young, a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University, is managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.

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