Gov. Corbett signs Pennsylvania state budget, vetoes legislative funding
HARRISBURG — Intraparty warring among Republicans broke out on Thursday when Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $29.1 billion budget but vetoed 20 percent of the GOP-dominated legislature's operating budget, intending to pressure lawmakers to rein in state and school pension costs.
Party leaders accused Corbett of politicizing the budget and failing to lead.
“I think you can't lead from behind; you've got to lead out front,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Marshall. He complained the governor's actions seemed more about “politics than the hard work of governing.”
Furious Senate leaders said the budget process “is not a game to be played, and vital government programs should never be placed in jeopardy.”
“We are disappointed that the governor has not, to date, been able to work effectively with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to address important fiscal issues impacting our state,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County said in a joint statement.
Asked whether he would call lawmakers back from summer recess for a special session to enact pension reform, Corbett said he is considering all options. His office said he would address the topic of pensions on Friday during a visit to Pittsburgh.
The House returns on Aug. 4 for up to three days and may consider a proposed optional cigarette tax for funding Philadelphia schools. The full General Assembly isn't expected to be in session until mid-September.
Corbett cut $65 million from the legislature's operating budget of $330 million. He vetoed $7.2 million in designated legislative spending, including $5 million for legislative parking in Harrisburg.
The $65 million represents 43 percent of the legislature's carefully guarded $150 million surplus. Leaders refused to give any of that money to taxpayers when balancing the budget and now must spend some of the surplus to operate, said Corbett.
“They filled the budget with discretionary spending and then refused to deal with the biggest fiscal challenge facing Pennsylvania,” Corbett said. He accused lawmakers of “forcing 163 school districts to raise property taxes on hard-working Pennsylvanians to pay for skyrocketing pension costs.”
The state faced a $1.5 billion budget deficit. The no-tax budget uses one-time fixes, transfers and raids of funds to make up much of the deficit, lawmakers said. The budget overall increases spending 1.8 percent.
The sharp rebukes by members of his party astonished some observers.
“This is really unprecedented, to completely throw the governor under the bus like this,” said Jack Treadway, a retired political science professor from Kutztown University. “If you thought the guy was even competitive, you wouldn't do that to him.”
Corbett of Shaler trails York Democrat Tom Wolf by double digits in public opinion polls for the governor's race in November. Wolf said the budget “is not a blueprint for the future, but another missed opportunity that will keep our state stuck in neutral.”
Corbett may have had no choice, said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College. If he signed the budget without pension reform, he'd appear weak; if he vetoed it entirely, critics would call him an obstructionist, DiSarro said.
But a battle within the Republican Party is “not a good sign for his re-election,” he said, noting that the way to salvage a positive result would be to produce something — even minimal — to reduce pension costs.
The Republican gridlock was not lost on Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills, who said it is “hard to fathom what Gov. Corbett believes he can achieve.”
“His actions today will not help schools, students, job seekers or the vulnerable in need of assistance. The budget, and his actions, are politically-driven and do not solve problems,” Costa said.
The public pension systems represent a growing financial strain on state government and local school districts. Corbett said lawmakers left Harrisburg “with unfinished business. They need to come back and enact pension reform.”
Corbett said he is “forcing mutual sacrifice with the General Assembly.”
Not all lawmakers were angry about the cuts to the legislature's budget. Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, called the veto “a good first step. Step two would be calling us back to Harrisburg for a special session on pension reform.”
Corbett asked Pennsylvanians to tell their lawmakers to “stand up to public-sector unions” leading the battle against pension reform.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free market policy group, said Corbett rightly put pressure on lawmakers, because “every effort to address the $50 billion-and-growing pension has been stopped in its tracks by special interests.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.