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Corbett about to get third commission going to study state issue

| Tuesday, July 19, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett isn't the first state executive to appoint special commissions to highlight issues, build consensus or buy a little time on a hot topic, experts and former governors say.

"The value is in direct proportion to how the person who appoints the commission decides to use the information," said former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey, a Republican who served on a 2006 transportation commission under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. "I don't think many, if any (recommendations), were ever acted on."

Rendell says that 2006 report was strikingly similar to recommendations that a transportation commission under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett approved on Monday, at least in terms of major ways to raise revenue.

Corbett's panel advised a variety of moves, from increasing the state's wholesale tax on oil companies to raising fees for vehicle registrations and driver's licenses. The recommendations outline $2.5 billion in annual need for roads and bridges. In 2006, the stated need was $1.7 billion a year.

"Unfortunately, sometimes, no matter how credible the people are (on the commission) or how solid the research is, (the report) doesn't get acted on," Rendell said. "They are sometimes not feasible with a Legislature afraid of its own shadow or afraid of Grover Norquist," the anti-tax guru who heads the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform.

As a candidate last year, Corbett took a no-tax-hike pledge with Norquist's group.

Corbett "doesn't say (to commissions), 'You can't come up with these suggestions,' " said his spokesman, Kevin Harley. "Whether he adopts them, in the end, is another matter."

Asked whether Corbett thinks lifting the cap on the state Oil & Franchise tax constitutes a tax increase, Harley said Corbett will let the commission make its final report, then carefully review the recommendations and work with the Legislature on solutions.

The commission steered clear of a direct tax increase on what drivers pay at the pumps.

Sometimes a commission's report is only a slice of the bigger picture a governor sees. Corbett wants to sell the state liquor stores, with one possible use of revenue from the auction being the creation of a transportation trust fund. But that's not likely to be part of the transportation panel's report, Harley said.

The transportation commission report, due by Aug. 1, follows recommendations coming Friday from the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Among its recommendations: imposing an impact fee on deep-well gas drilling and using "forced pooling" with holdout property owners. Corbett opposes the latter.

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who heads the shale commission, had said a tax on drilling is "off the table." Corbett has said he would consider a fee.

A third panel to study privatization of state assets will get under way in August, Harley said.

Sometimes governors create commissions with a preordained notion of how they'd like the report to turn out, said former Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh. "Often, a governor has a broad outline of what he would like the commission to come up with. Sometimes, they (commissions) surprise you," he said.

"Believe it or not, sometimes you don't want a preordained result," Thornburgh said. "You just want the best information available."

Commissions often provide "political cover" on complex and controversial issues by having a third party make a recommendation, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

"I think they serve a valid purpose if they make an elected official braver," said Anthony May, a former top aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey.

In some cases, governors create commissions to move "a hot issue off center stage," Thornburgh said.

Leaders in Washington and Harrisburg create them to show impartiality and bipartisanship, but officials rarely implement their recommendations, said Joseph DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College.

"I fail to see why they are used at all," DiSarro said.

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who chaired several commissions under Casey, said they do sometimes provide a governor or president with cover. He added that appointing people to commissions "is a nice little perk to hand out to supporters."

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