Polls eclipse Corbett car cuts
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 9:10 p.m.
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett can't gain mileage in public opinion polls, but he has taken lots of state-paid cars off the highways.
During a week when critics pilloried him for several missteps and his popularity hit a low in a statewide poll, Corbett's campaign issued a news release saying he kept a campaign promise to cut the state vehicle fleet by 20 percent, saving taxpayers $44 million.
“No matter how you shake it, it was not a positive week,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. His poll found 76 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed consider Corbett's job performance fair to poor, and 16 percent say it's excellent or good, a worse rating than in May.
The car reduction is positive for Corbett, “but it's not enough,” Madonna said.
Steven Weidner, director of vehicle management for the Department of General Services, said the administration might eliminate more cars.
“We anticipate that number to continue to grow,” he said.
Corbett's campaign manager, Michael Barley, said the governor campaigned on “reforming state government, reducing costs and ensuring taxpayer dollars are utilized efficiently, and he has kept his promises.” The reduced auto fleet is one of many common-sense reforms to protect taxpayer funds, he said.
Since January 2011, the number of passenger cars in the state fleet decreased from 9,866 to 7,798 on Aug. 20, records show. Much of the savings comes from not replacing older vehicles, along with savings in maintenance and fuel.
“Millions of dollars have not been spent to replace, maintain, fuel, park and insure those vehicles,” said Beverly Hudson, special assistant to General Services Secretary Sheri Phillips.
State employees who commute no longer get take-home cars, though exceptions exist for some positions such as field auditors, Hudson said.
The $44 million saved is a conservative estimate, Weidner said.
The department is putting more money into rental cars. It began using rentals as needed, costing $976,798 the first six months of this year. That cost is up from $392,230 in 2011 because of increased usage, the agency said.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car opened a small office in a state facility on Forster Street. Weidner ran Enterprise offices in Oklahoma.
Enterprise offers General Services a deal on rentals, charging no per-car fee (typically $3), no tax (which averages $5 per car) and a $2 reduction on daily rates, agency spokesman Troy Thompson said. The state has full collision coverage and liability protection.
“Our (legal) exposure is incredibly less,” Weidner said.
When state officials considered rental car companies, it became clear that Weidner had a conflict because of his past employment with Enterprise, Hudson said: “He was completely blocked out of that entire process.”
Six of 22 cabinet members, including Phillips, don't have state-paid cars. Other cabinet members' vehicles include Jeep Cherokees, Chevy Impalas and Malibu Hybrids.
When Corbett took office, critics pounced when the state bought four new SUVs for him, first lady Susan Corbett, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and Cawley's wife, Suzanna. That purchase cost taxpayers about $187,000. State police decide what vehicles the governor, lieutenant governor and their families use, Barley said.
Still, the purchase draws lingering criticism. “Tom Corbett has one set of rules for himself and one set of rules for everyone else,” said Marc Eisenstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Party.
When campaigning, Corbett, a Shaler Republican, termed the state's fleet of 17,000 vehicles “ridiculous.” More than 7,000 were trucks, snow plows and heavy equipment vehicles.
Corbett's past week was as rough as Capitol insiders can recall for any governor. He dismissed his acting Education Department secretary for allegedly inappropriate remarks to a school superintendent, and critics said Corbett hadn't properly vetted William Harner, a 20-year Army officer.
Less than a day later, Harner's replacement, Carolyn Dumaresq, acknowledged and corrected her mistake of failing to include outside income on a disclosure form while serving on a state board and later as deputy Education secretary.
On Thursday, Corbett's attorneys became involved in a spat over a court brief they filed in a lawsuit to stop Montgomery County's register of wills from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The attorneys argued that licenses given to same-sex couples are invalid because state law bars gays marriage, just as it bars 12-year-olds from marrying.
Democrats chided the reference to children, and, although Corbett's lawyer said it was repeated out of context, the Corbett administration later termed it inappropriate.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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