Gov. Tom Corbett is making his New Year’s resolutions early.
He’s two years into his first term as Pennsylvania’s chief executive with several accomplishments under his belt.
He’s kept his promise not to pass new taxes and bring corporate taxes down. He’s overseen the passage of an impact fee on natural gas drillers. And he’s worked to save three in-state oil refineries in danger of shutting down.
But every year, one of the biggest tests of leadership culminates in the passage of a state budget. On his third go-round, Corbett says, things are going to work a little differently – at least when it comes to dealing with legislative leaders.
“We’re going to be bringing them in. Because I’m tired – let’s take a look at it from the budget. I present a budget, and everybody shoots at it. OK?” he says in presenting his quandary. “Well then, why don’t you tell me ahead of time?”
Top members of the Legislature have pressed the governor to get out in front of the House and Senate when it comes to big initiatives. The budget process is designed for just such a big-footed approach — the governor’s spending proposal, delivered in February, kick-starts the whole thing.
But Corbett says this time the process will begin with talks with Republican and Democratic members, “starting with Republicans,” he says.
This embrace of the legislative process is new.
“I know we need to communicate better, and I think we are,” he explains. “We’re in that process.”
Still adjusting to role
Corbett still seems to be adjusting to the role of governor. Not only did he campaign on his ability to clear the building of corrupt politicians, he’s counter-culture. He came in as a former state attorney general; he and others say he brought the habits of that office with him. He tends to work the case behind the scenes, without publicity until he has everything he needs to seal the deal.
The governor says he takes issue with criticism that he’s secretive or not as visible as his predecessor.
“Part of what (reporters) think is inaccessible is extremely busy. One day as governor is seven days of attorney general,” he says. “I’ve never had a job that kept me this busy.”
Inaccessible or busy, he notes that he had to get used to the process of lobbying the Legislature.
It’s been an officewide education.
Amid reports that some top GOP donors were pushing the governor to improve how he deals with the Republican-controlled Legislature, Corbett’s chief of staff resigned about a month before the budget deadline this past year.
Three months later, a second senior aide, Corbett’s legislative secretary, was appointed to a post in another state agency, and replaced with one of Corbett’s general counsel deputies.
The governor says he’s insisted to lawmakers they they go directly to him if they have concerns.
“Pick up the phone!” he says. “I don’t think I’m unapproachable.”
Transportation projects and pension gap
The upcoming year will prove no simpler with more people at the table. Aside from the governor’s own as-yet-unfinished pet proposals – such as selling off the state’s liquor stores and making it easier to authorize charter schools – two huge undertakings remain.
The first is getting together the billions of dollars needed to pay for road and bridge construction and repair. Making the choices necessary to liberate the dollars for all those projects will be tough.
The second thorny issue is pension reform.
Corbett has no problem telegraphing which potential solutions he prefers. He says the “first” thing is to move future employees to a different, cheaper kind of pension plan. He thinks reducing future benefits of current workers can be done legally. And he’s confident that any substantial reform is likely to invite a lawsuit.
The way Corbett sees it, he’s sacrificed some bargaining chips with the Legislature. He’s sworn off certain ways of doing business, he says. Others, he says, he’s just now beginning to understand.
“It’s taken me a while to learn how much they want to be with the governor. How do I explain that? They really want to come in, they want to get their picture taken with the governor. To many of them, it’s very important.
“And I don’t think I quite realized that. And it’s not that I didn’t care,” he says. “It’s just … I’m used to just being me.”
It may be the clearest sign yet that the longtime prosecutor has grown into the role of top executive.