Down in polls, Corbett has limited options with Pa. budget, pension return
HARRISBURG — Down by double digits in public opinion polls, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has few good political choices when deciding by Friday whether to sign the state budget — except some high-risk options of taking on the Legislature, analysts say.
“None of them are great options for the governor in an election year,” said Christopher Borick, a professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Corbett of Shaler trailed Democrat Tom Wolf of York by 22 points in a Franklin & Marshall poll last week on the November election.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly sent Corbett a $29.1 billion state budget by the June 30 constitutional deadline that did not include tax increases, which normally would reflect Corbett's stance as someone opposed to tax increases. He said budgets during his first three years were on time, though some Democrats dispute the timing because budget-related bills were not passed until after the deadline in the past two years.
Last week, Corbett refused to sign the general fund budget before the deadline, saying he would withhold his signature while lawmakers worked on pension reform proposals. Pension costs are driving up school real estate taxes and eating revenue that could go to other programs, Corbett has said.
The House committed to taking up pension reform in the fall.
“We want all the stakeholders to come together over the summer,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, a House leader. “There's definitely going to be an up-or-down vote in the fall.”
A pension bill that Corbett supported fell short of the votes needed for passage in a procedural vote.
Corbett now could:
• Sign the budget;
• Let it become law without his signature on Friday, because a governor has 10 days to consider legislation before it automatically becomes law;
• Veto the entire bill;
• Veto some spending in the bill, including the Legislature's funding.
The General Assembly spends $300 million a year and has a surplus of about $150 million.
Jay Pagni, Corbett's spokesman, said the governor is considering all of his options.
Corbett could call a special session, which requires lawmakers to gavel into session, but he cannot compel them to consider pension reform if they return.
Over the years, special sessions have had mixed success, experts say. The governor sets the agenda. Topics have included gun control, crime, transportation and property tax reform.
Lawmakers can gavel out of special session and into regular session to consider anything they want.
“It seems like a no-win situation,” said Michael Federici, a political science professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie. “The closer you get to an election, the less willing Republicans will be to sign on” to pension reform.
The fall session amounts to only a few days — not much time for passage, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Even during the procedural vote, 15 Republicans defected. The House, rather than vote on merits of reform, decided 107-96 to send a pension bill to a committee chaired by a pro-labor Republican, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo of Bucks County. As part of a compromise, DiGirolamo's committee later sent it back to the House to set the stage for a fall vote. Critics say the bill would not yield immediate savings.
The House and Senate left town, ostensibly for summer recess. Senators will return on Tuesday to vote on legislation that includes a key budget companion bill.
Vetoing legislative funding is risky unless Corbett “can convince voters he's on their side and is fighting for them” over pensions, Federici said.
Letting the budget become law “may be the best solution,” he said. “It passes by quietly, and the Legislature promises they'll work on it.”
Signing the bill at a news conference would call attention to the fact that “he didn't get what he wanted,” Federici said.
Borick said it's clear the Legislature “is going at its own pace right now (on pensions). It's very difficult for Corbett to position himself for the fall.”
Campaigning against the Legislature has its downsides, Borick said.
“You want those Republicans to come out and work for you this fall; it's part of your base.”
The Legislature still needs to send Corbett a fiscal code to implement the budget. In its current form, the budget trailer bill is loaded with topics, despite court rulings “showing less tolerance for this type of strategy,” said Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
“It's a school code, tax code and welfare code rolled into a fiscal code,” Ward said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.