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Occam's razor & the Pennsylvania governor's race

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

In last week's Pittsburgh debate by the four Democrats seeking their party's nomination for governor, the candidates were of one mind: They all agreed that education funding is woefully inadequate. And since Pennsylvania is the only state without a severance tax on gas drilling, they all agreed that one should be enacted to change that.

But it was Occam's razor that set the theme for now and the fall general election. Occam's razor, the namesake of a 14th-century English Franciscan friar who made it popular, is the notion that between two competing positions, the simpler one is better.

Because of voters' natural instincts, any politician whose positions require lengthy explanations faces a tough hurdle. And Gov. Tom Corbett's position on both education funding and the gas tax can only be, “Yes, but it's more complicated than that. Let us explain.”

Education funding has been far less under Corbett than under the previous administration of Ed Rendell. But the governor's supporters explain that away, claiming that Rendell used federal stimulus money to support education and that money expired.

The governor's spokesman argues that the education budget had been “propped up” by those stimulus dollars and that the Corbett administration has actually increased the amount of “state” tax dollars spent on education.

But to the parent, and the child struggling to get a good education, it is simple: Education funding has been cut.

Likewise, it is not possible to deny that Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without a severance tax on drillers. Again, the governor's supporters say it is more complicated than that.

While a severance tax could produce far more revenue than the existing impact fees the drillers pay, the administration warns that the drillers could pick up and move their rigs to another state if the tax is enacted.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, recently told the Pennsylvania Independent that “new energy taxes will reduce development in Pennsylvania, and more capital — not less — will be directed to other states or countries.”

But to the average Pennsylvanian, it is simple: Every other state has a severance tax and the gas is here, so we should tax it the same way the others do.

Gov. Corbett has the advantage of incumbency and no Pennsylvania governor has been defeated for re-election. But come fall, much will depend on his campaign's ability to explain his positions on education and the gas severance tax.

The Democrats are providing simple answers, a balm for voters who often vote their gut, following their intuition.

Albert Einstein could have been setting the stage for the governor's race when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

And the result could turn on how the voters view Einstein's conclusion: “We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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