Pennsylvania's roads and bridges are in bad shape. School taxes have shot up, in part, to cover districts' higher contributions to state pensions. And customers regularly complain about the state's antiquated system for selling liquor and beer.
So why doesn't Pennsylvania's 2013-14 budget, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed on June 30, solve any of these challenges? Corbett described all of them as top priorities in his budget proposal. Yet even with Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, Corbett's ambitious agenda failed.
Because the state Legislature passed the budget on time, “I can't be disappointed,” Corbett told reporters on the night of June 30 after signing the budget bill. “I have to thank the people for what they did and I certainly encourage them when they get back in the fall; Let's get it done,” he told the Patriot-News in Harrisburg.
There are compelling reasons to address all three of Corbett's priorities but the governor's approach didn't work and each of his proposals has flaws.
Adequate funding to repair roads and bridges and to pay for mass transit should have received broad support from Republicans and Democrats. Citizens are well aware that Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of bridges that are structurally deficient and state highways have taken a beating.
Corbett set up an independent commission to recommend new sources of revenue for transportation. The governor then followed up on the commission's recommendations by proposing an increase in wholesale taxes on gasoline, with the higher cost likely passed along to motorists.
Democrats refused to support the transportation plan from the governor, who has refused to raise taxes for anything else. Still, Corbett might have been able to forge a consensus if he had recognized that he needed Democratic votes to pass his transportation plan and then tried not to alienate them on other issues.
But instead of trying to build bipartisan support for at least one agenda item, Corbett unveiled a privatization plan for the state liquor system that included costly fees that favored big retailers and irked beer distributors. His plan also provoked the usual litany of complaints from Democrats that state jobs would be eliminated.
Corbett also distracted from liquor privatization when he forged ahead to contract with Camelot Global Services, a British company, to run the Pennsylvania Lottery. Attorney General Kathleen Kane ruled that Corbett's plan is unconstitutional, but Camelot has extended its bid until July 31 and Corbett is rewriting the contract.
With his pension reforms, Corbett wanted to move current state employees and school workers into 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plans. Was it ever reasonable to expect that current state legislators would kick themselves out of their own pension plan?
To achieve his goals in the fall, Corbett must set priorities on the three agenda items, woo some Democrats and stop betting on lottery privatization.