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Gov. Corbett shuns limelight his predecessor often seemed to seek

| Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

HARRISBURG — In his classes at the University of Pittsburgh, political communications professor Jerry Shuster sometimes referred to Gov. Tom Corbett as "GIH," for governor in hiding, because people rarely saw him during budget negotiations.

After lawmakers on June 30 adopted an on-time budget for the first time in nine years, closing a $4.2 billion deficit and cutting spending without raising taxes, Shuster said he couldn't argue with Corbett's success in fiscal matters. Still, he wasn't successful in pushing education reform or liquor store divestiture through a Republican-controlled Legislature, Shuster said.

"I am surprised he is such a recluse," said Shuster, noting that Corbett's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, held news conferences and took road trips to present cardboard checks "at the drop of a hat."

"Stylistically, Tom Corbett is not as garrulous as Ed Rendell. It's difficult, maybe, for the press to adjust to that," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP consultant. "Tom Corbett has performed in a solid, steady manner, and he's moved the legislative ball successfully." On tuition vouchers and a Marcellus shale impact fee, "he took it to the red zone," Gerow said, but not to the end zone.

Corbett didn't make many public appearances during budget talks because he was working to get things done without raising taxes, Gerow said. By contrast, Rendell "never met a tax he didn't like or a dollar he didn't want to spend. I don't say that pejoratively," Gerow said.

Rendell, who returned to his former Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Voters in November 2010 chose Corbett, a Shaler Republican, over Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato of Brighton Heights to succeed Rendell, who was prohibited by law from seeking a third term. Analysts say what's different — and what's the same — under this administration covers a range of issues, public perceptions and expectations.

Corbett, who completes his first year in office this month, "meets most conservative tests of not trying to do everything for everybody, all the time," said Anthony May, a former top aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey. "He wants to ratchet back the role of government in people's lives."

Rendell believed "if there was a problem and no one else was addressing it, it was perfectly appropriate for government to address it," May said.

Speaking off the cuff

In 2009, with budget talks in shambles, Rendell sat by a wading pool, wearing a sport shirt and white shorts and accompanied by his two golden retrievers, for a Tribune-Review interview in which he insisted that lawmakers had to approve another income tax increase. He urged them to cancel vacation plans to work on a budget already a month late. The impasse lasted 101 days. Members of his party wouldn't back a tax increase.

Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, was prone to ad lib when approached by reporters, something Corbett won't do. Corbett, a suburban Pittsburgher with Midwestern values, "doesn't dance in the end zone," said Kevin Shivers, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania.

Rendell once implied it would be a good idea to "gas" state legislators. He amazed reporters when he told a story about wanting to grab an elderly woman around the neck and "throttle her" after she poked him in the chest and complained because he signed the 2005 pay raise for legislators, judges and executive staffers. He told a group of Bucks County businessmen that he signed the pay raise bill to "kiss a little butt" with legislators and earn goodwill to pass his programs and spending.

Rendell told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007 that government reformer Eric Epstein was "about as mentally stable as that guy who ate all the people," an apparent reference to Jeffrey Dahmer or the fictional character Hannibal Lecter.

Corbett more often says simply "no comment."

Flexing fiscal discipline

Those who did not like Corbett's fiscal approach had fair warning.

"He said what he was going to do, and he did it," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Uniontown.

Corbett cut $1.1 billion in state spending to reduce the deficit, mostly caused by the end of the federal stimulus program. He kept his vow not to raise taxes, saying in a recent telephone interview: "I made promises during the campaign and did my best as governor to keep them."

He said he believes a key difference between his administration and Rendell's is that he removed the expectation to spend every dollar in state revenue.

Republican lawmakers complained about Rendell's shifting priorities when budget deadlines drew near. Clearly a skilled negotiator, he kept GOP legislative leaders off-balance.

Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, said he likes the predictability Corbett brings to the office.

"When he says something, he means it," Reese said. "That's the biggest thing I see: Corbett doesn't play the political games. He is very direct."

Handling natural disasters

Some say weather disasters in February 2007 and September 2010 demonstrated the governors' personality differences.

Rendell was at home in Philadelphia watching a Penn State University basketball game on TV on Feb. 14, 2007, when a state trooper from his security detail called to make sure he knew about the ice-caked gridlock on interstate highways in central Pennsylvania.

He didn't know, but vowed the next day to get to the bottom of planning and communication breakdowns by PennDOT and other agencies. He ordered a full-scale investigation to determine why he didn't know sooner.

In September, when flooding caused thousands of people in the Harrisburg area to evacuate and threatened Wilkes-Barre levees, Corbett directed the state's disaster relief effort at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters.

A former National Guard captain, he appeared comfortable wearing a blue, short-sleeved shirt emblazoned with Pennsylvania State Police as he referred to enlarged maps to explain to reporters what was happening.

"There's no question he was on top of things," said May. "Rendell had to get burned on bad weather on roads ... before he became aware of governors' roles in national disasters."

Becoming business-friendly

Business leaders say they like Corbett's direction so far.

Shivers, with the small business lobbying group, worked for Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who preceded Rendell. One shift Shivers sees is the Corbett administration's emphasis on improving Pennsylvania's business climate.

In March, before Corbett introduced his budget, he approved tax rules that brought a $200 million tax break for businesses.

"There's much greater emphasis on working with job creators," Shivers said.

In June, Corbett signed the Fair Share Act, which businesses consider landmark lawsuit-reform legislation. Rendell vetoed a similar bill in 2006. The law provides for proportional damages in civil lawsuits. Defendants less than 60 percent responsible cannot be held liable for the entire damage award and will pay based on degree of responsibility.

Business leaders say it was a step toward changing a legal climate that can affect companies' bottom lines.

But Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills claims the law "takes away victims' rights."

Breaking PSU scandal

When Corbett took office, he knew something the public didn't: a secret grand jury was investigating allegations that former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested young boys.

Corbett began the investigation when attorney general in 2009, based on a referral from the Centre County district attorney.

As governor, Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut in state funding for Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities. The Legislature restored almost half of what Corbett proposed cutting, but the universities absorbed the sharpest decrease in recent recollection.

In November, the child abuse scandal exploded with criminal charges filed against Sandusky. Prosecutors charged two administrators with perjury for failing to report the alleged 2002 sodomy of a 10-year-old boy. The board of trustees fired legendary coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier was forced to resign.

Corbett, on the board as governor, waited four days before holding a news conference in State College. He later spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press," at a Philadelphia news conference and to the Pennsylvania Press Club.

Corbett had talked to board members privately. Those who know him say he is less concerned with the public message.

Critics say Corbett took too long to investigate and should have arrested Sandusky much earlier. But Corbett said a prosecutor shouldn't file charges based on one incident, and that's what his office knew about at first.

Rendell might have handled the situation differently, said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations strategist.

"I think Rendell would have relished the national spotlight. I think he would have taken personal control of it," Ceisler said. "But it's really hard to compare Corbett and Rendell, because Corbett was attorney general when it started. The problem is (that) Corbett, because he investigated it, has to be really careful what he says."

Tapping Marcellus shale

The perception and record of each governor on natural gas drilling offers contrasts, yet not as sharply as some might think.

Environmentalists, many of whom want to ban Marcellus shale drilling, portray Corbett as being "in the back pocket of drilling companies," May said. Yet the growth of the shale industry in Pennsylvania began under Rendell.

Both governors allowed drilling in state forests. However, Corbett's rhetoric is pro-industry and tilted toward growth; Rendell emphasized environmental protection.

"Rendell did a better job of 'talking the talk,' " said David Chambers, a political science professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Rendell pushed for a severance tax on drilling in 2009. He wanted to use the money for general spending. Senate Republicans, primarily, blocked the aggressive taxation structure he sought.

When Corbett took office, he said he would not support a tax but was open to an "impact fee," if most of the money went to local governments. Republicans have been instrumental in shaping that debate, but lawmakers haven't acted on a bill that made it to a House-Senate conference committee.

Some note that both governors supported a surcharge — whether a tax or a fee — on the industry. "I don't see a great deal of difference," Chambers said.

But Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, thinks the governors reacted much differently. He said Corbett adopted almost a "laissez-faire" attitude and Rendell viewed state government as having a "larger role to play" with the developing shale industry.

David Hess, a former DEP secretary, said enforcement and environmental permitting remains much the same, largely because the same people are doing the regulatory jobs.

Corbett formed a Marcellus Shale Commission that proposed regulations beyond existing law for environmental protection, although few of the recommendations have become law. In October, Corbett suggested giving counties the option to impose fees on drillers, and House Republicans agreed. The Senate took a different approach. A committee is negotiating the two versions.

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