Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett's budget is expected to boost school funding
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
HARRISBURG — Seeking re-election with weak voter approval numbers, Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday will present a state spending blueprint expected to suggest more money for education and human services, rather than drastic cuts he said were necessary when he took office in 2011.
The governor's 2014-15 budget won't propose raising taxes, and the increase for basic education for public schools is expected to be about $200 million, officials said.
“We're going to see the quintessential election-year budget,” said Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “First of all, this is his fourth and last budget, I'd like to think. He has to take ownership for the massive cuts in education the past three years.”
Other Democrats in the House and Senate are likely to criticize Corbett, a Shaler Republican. They say he cut $1 billion from basic education in 2011 and that schools never caught up. Corbett has said he didn't replace federal stimulus money and that public schools received more than ever, $5.5 billion, in the 2013-14 budget.
That figure is misleading because Corbett includes money for school employees' pension contributions — money that doesn't go to classrooms, Democrats say. Corbett's spokesman Jay Pagni says personnel costs paid by taxpayers should be included.
Corbett faced a $4.2 billion deficit on taking office. “This budget is born of the tough decisions of the past three years,” Pagni said.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate begin budget hearings on Feb. 10. By law, the Legislature must complete a budget by June 30.
Corbett had not briefed legislative leaders by Friday, said Mark Meyer, executive director of the Senate Appropriations Committee under Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County.
Corbett's re-election campaign is paying a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush to help with the governor's address.
Lawmakers and others expect Corbett to emphasize jobs, education and human services.
Working within limited resources, Corbett's budget will be the “equivalent of small ball” in baseball — scoring runs through singles, stolen bases and bunts, rather than power, said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
The administration will talk about increases, not cuts, he said.
A Franklin & Marshall poll last week found 23 percent of voters think Corbett deserves to keep the job, up from 20 percent in October; the poll has an error margin of 4.1 percentage points.
Nagging Corbett are those first-year cuts to public schools and higher education.
“He doesn't have a lot of money to spend. He's got to change the narrative on money to schools” in a way that doesn't anger his conservative base, Madonna said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said it appears that Corbett is “trying to rehabilitate himself in terms of how he's viewed on education funding. ... Personally, I don't think it'll work, because people know it's a political gimmick.”
Pagni rejected any suggestion the budget is motivated by politics.
Eight Democrats are vying for the party's nomination to challenge Corbett this fall. In addition, he could be challenged in the May 20 GOP primary by Montgomery County attorney Bob Guzzardi, a self-described conservative reformer.
During the past few weeks, Corbett has hinted at features of his budget, including a 10 percent boost for rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs, and the “Governor's Expanding Excellence Program” to provide competitive funding to school districts that perform well on school profiles based mostly on standardized tests.
Corbett said recently that the state needs a fair funding formula for schools.
Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, said he “finds it strange that the governor is saying the education formula isn't fair, when he's been governor for three years.”
It's not just a formula, Evans said: “You got to put some money to it.”
J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester, said he doesn't believe “there's anything Corbett can do regarding his own agenda to cause him to be re-elected. The only thing that could save him would be a negative campaign” against the Democrat who wins the primary.
Corbett's Republican base appears to be split, but that doesn't mean disaffected conservatives would vote for the Democrat, Leckrone said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.
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