Did Corbett fumble state budget politics?

    Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision not to sign the budget passed by the legislature Monday night means that for the first time since he took office, the state didn’t have a budget in place by the June 30th deadline. And maybe that’s okay for him.

    Corbett’s been telling voters he’s governed without raising taxes (some Republicans dispute that) and gotten budgets done on time, unlike his Democratic predecessor Ed Rendell, but the message isn’t exactly working. Polls show him trailing Democratic candidate Tom Wolf by 20 points in the gubernatorial election.

    So, when the Pennsylvania legislature approved another budget on time Monday night without tax increases, Corbett balked rather than embracing it. Muhlenbeg College political scientist Christopher Borick said in this election year, Corbett wants more.

    “What the governor is looking for is some type of signature, election year policy achievement on a major problem,” Borick said.

    Coming into budget season, Corbett signalled to lawmakers that this time, getting a couple big things done was more important than an on-time budget. The two big things things were a reforming the state liquor store system, and overhauling state employee retirement systems, moving new employees toward a hybrid plan with 401-K type accounts and reducing costs for taxpayers.

    It was soon clear liquor reform wasn’t happening, but Corbett held onto hopes for a pension bill. Late Sunday Corbett summoned reporters and all but taunted Philadelphia Democrats, saying they could get their cigarette tax for schools with support for pension bill.Some in the capitol spoke of Corbett’s public offer to trade votes as ham-handed, and it went nowhere.

    When lawmakers ignored him and passed a budget without pension reform, Corbett neither signed it nor vetoed it, but held off, saying he would consider it, and still hope for a pension bill.

    Pittsburgh political analyst Jon Delano said that was a strange move. “In my view the Governor’s action appears confused, it appears muddled,” Delano said, “because if he wants to send a message to the legislature that he wants a pension deal, he ought to just veto the budget, and await action from the state legislature.”

    It may well be that Corbett will emerge from all this having broken his string of on-time budgets, soley by his own action, with no major policy achievement to show for it.

    Delano said if Corbett wanted to gamble on a policy breakthrough, he probably chose the one with less political punch.

    “I don’t think that pension reform is a be-all and end-all for taxpayers simply because it’s hard to relate to,” Delano said. “If you were going to hold up a budget, it probably would make sense to do so for liquor reform, to get grocery stores to have the ability to sell wine and beer.”

    Corbett didn’t pursue that, because it seemed to have less chance of passage than a pension bill. And he can argue that he went after pension reform because it was the right thing to do, not because he wanted to score political points. It’s historically true that major policy initiatives often move during the budget process because so many interests are in play and there are deals to be made.

    Corbett campaign manager Mike Barley released a statement noting the dire risks to the state’s finances if the pension problem isn’t addressed, and saying the governor would continue to work with the legislature on the issue. “Governor Corbett means it when he says that he didn’t come to Harrisburg to make friends – he came here to build a stronger Pennsylvania,” the statement said.

    One Harrisburg staffer made an interesting point to me, noting that as state attorney general, Corbett’s bonusgate and computergate investigations put a lot of legislators from both parties behind bars. Many of them, he said, felt under siege for months, even years while Corbett’s investigators served subpoenas. So when he wants to put a friendly arm on lawmakers to get help on a bill, there may not be a lot good will to build on.

    There’s plenty of time for Corbett’s fortunes to improve before November of course, and maybe once the fall campaign is underway the budget drama will seem like ancient history.

    The Wolf campaign has had little to say in the past few days, perhaps following an age-old political dictum: when your opponent is self-destructing, stay out of his way.

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