A budget is a reflection of priorities. For popularity-challenged Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, that priority is winning an upset reelection victory this November.
Today, Corbett delivered his annual budget address. After years of doom and gloom, he decided on Morning-in-America optimism and bipartisanship.
Most conspicuously, he highlighted proposed new spending on education. The old Tom Corbett hasn't worked out too well.
"Every child in this state should be ready to learn, ready to grow and ready to succeed," he said, in a strange echo of the public-education advocates who protest his every move. "Education is the single largest item in my budget."
That includes a $20 million increase in special-education funding, and $240 million in new spending on a block grant — called "Ready to Learn" — that goes toward things like professional development. The money, however, does not go to the basic education line item that pays for things like teacher salaries, and which has undergone massive cuts.
In a bright spot, the budget includes a major boost to services for people with disabilities.
But it includes no increase for state-related universities like Temple, which have suffered big cutbacks in recent years. And the budget won't change the basic fact that education statewide is in crisis. This is Corbett's big problem.
In Philadelphia, the meltdown has been spectacular. This year alone, 383 teachers, counselors, secretaries, and support staff were laid off, according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. That does not include victims of earlier layoffs, including nurses, whose ranks were cut by 38 percent, and positions eliminated through attrition.
Over all, the District has 7,000 fewer staff than at its 2009 peak. The anger is palpable.
A sixth-grade girl died, under disputed circumstances, after falling sick at a school where no nurse was on duty last fall. The High School for the Creative and Performing Arts saved its marquee musical only after raising thousands of dollars from the public. Last year, the musical was cancelled.
These are the sorts of headlines that have defined Corbett's time in office thus far. His campaign paid George W. Bush speechwriter John P. McConnell to help change that. The Inquirer reports that among members of the "governor's inner circle" there is "a feeling that Corbett cannot take any chances or risk any more political stumbles between now and the election."
Ten months, however, will be a long time for Corbett to make not a single political stumble. Just weeks ago, he ran from protesting students at Philadelphia's Central High School. Today, he said the best workforce in America was in Pennsylvania. But last year, he said that many workers couldn't find jobs because they were failing drug tests. Today, he did not discuss gay marriage. This is good. The last time he did so, he compared it to incest.
It's hard to envy Corbett, like him or not. For many Pennsylvanians, according to a January Franklin & Marshall College poll, it's not. Just 23 percent of voters say he is doing an "excellent" or "good" job, and only 32 percent believe he "cares about people like you."
Corbett took office in the midst of a revenue-crushing recession, confronting massively underfunded pensions. Voters elected him with a no-new-taxes mandate. Now, after four years, many wish they'd ordered something different.
His plea to make 2014 "last call for state-controlled liquor in Pennsylvania" is, perhaps, the one point where he has a clear political advantage over Democrats.
But liquor-store privatization, while popular, is not a voter priority. Among the various things people dislike about Corbett, education policy is what they dislike the most.
Even his fellow Republicans have gone sour: just 43 percent think he deserves reelection. The polls don't explain why. Some moderate Republicans, witnessing their local school system hurt and property taxes rise, might have buyer's remorse. Conservatives, however, are furious about Corbett's gas-taxing transportation bill.
"What has Tom Corbett done other than impose the biggest tax increase in 22 years?" complains Bob Guzzardi, a conservative activist and Corbett's long shot primary opponent, in a recent press release. "Ed Rendell is envious."
Corbett, like Republicans nationwide, is in an impossible situation. He's stuck between an increasingly left-leaning electorate and a party that finds itself under firm right-wing control.
Corbett still refuses to cover hundreds of thousands of uninsured Pennsylvanians through Obamacare's Medicaid expansion — unless, that is, the federal government makes the unlikely decision to approve his proposal requiring poor people to prove they are looking for work in exchange for coverage.
This budget will please almost no one.
Things were different in March 2011, when Corbett proposed his first austerity budget. At the time, education was just a line item in a tax-hike free budget that needed balancing.
"This budget sorts the must-haves from the nice-to-haves," Corbett sternly announced. "I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession."
Today, Corbett is riffling through the cushions.
Controversially, he wants to reduce state pension payments — the very sort of move that created the current pension mess in the first place. And he will continue to cut business taxes while refusing to back a severance tax on natural gas, which Democratic opponents say could raise $600 million in its first year. He plans to reopen some state parks to natural gas drilling instead. All this amid a projected $1.4 billion budget deficit at the close of 2014-15.
Corbett hopes that a rebounding economy will lift tax revenues. He also proposes to expand the state lottery to include keno.
(Corbett could get more money from gambling that is already legal: Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County, wants to redirect the $250 million in casino slot machine tax revenue to schools. Currently, it goes to the Race Horse Development Fund — mostly big prizes handed out to wealthy horse owners that include Saudi Arabian royalty.)
Meanwhile, Philadelphia's executive class is lining up behind the governor's reelection. David L. Cohen, Comcast executive vice president and Rendell's former chief of staff, donated $15,000 on top of $200,000 raised at a party in his Mt. Airy Home. That's in addition $55,000 from Comcast's PAC.
H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest — philanthropist, retired cable television magnate, and member of the warring ownership group that controls the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com — donated $250,000.
There are suggestions that this support didn't come cheap.
Comcast, as Daily News columnist Will Bunch noted, is receiving $34.5 million in taxpayer subsidies for its planned 1,121-foot-tall Philadelphia high-rise.
Lenfest, a longtime Democratic donor, told the Inquirer that he is backing the governor, in part, because he sent the Museum of the American Revolution $30 million from the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. (Yes, you can just donate $250,000 without even funneling it through a Super PAC — Pennsylvania has no limits on individual donations).
"A cynic might say that a $34.5 million return on a $200,000 investment in Corbett is a pretty good return," Bunch writes.
The problem for Corbett is that many voters are now cynics. As a political investment, this budget is likely to be seen as too little too late.
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