Nobody should be surprised by what Tom Corbett has done the last four years.
He’s done exactly what he said he was going to do.
And that’s the problem.
On Tuesday, the state will hold what amounts to a referendum on Corbett’s shaky first term as he is challenged by Democrat Tom Wolf, a York businessman.
Corbett, who gained popularity as a corruption-busting state attorney general, swept into office with a no-tax-hike pledge.
Then reality, in the form of a $4 billion deficit left for him in the governor’s mansion by Ed Rendell, smacked him in the face.
Bereft of avenues for new revenue and saddled with a state economy that was still struggling, Corbett was left with few options. He decided to cut instead, and thus branded his first term with a stigma he has yet to shake.
The attributes that made Corbett a good prosecutor failed him as the state’s chief executive. Both he and his staff seemed unprepared for the task of leading the state – and the heat that goes with it.
Despite enjoying majorities in both the Senate and House, Corbett maintained a testy relationship with the Legislature. The result? His major initiatives died there, including a push for privatizing the state liquor system and corralling a runaway unfunded liability in the state’s two major public pension systems. Even worse, Corbett and his staff failed to get their message to the public. That allowed their detractors to frame his efforts. He’s been playing catch-up ever since.
Corbett should receive credit for pushing through a major transportation package to attack the state’s crumbling infrastructure, something that did not win him any friends in the conservative wing of his own party, which considered it little more than a tax hike in disguise. He also delivered his no-tax-hike budgets on time, something Rendell could only dream about.
Perhaps the biggest focus of the past four years has been education funding in the state, an archaic, unbalanced system that continues to fail students in low-income districts. These students get a lesser education for no other reason than their zip code.
Not helping was the absence of federal stimulus funds, a billion dollar cure-all Rendell used to patch the holes in his budgets. Corbett didn’t have that luxury, but he did have options. He chose not to use them. In particular, his staunch opposition to an extraction tax on drillers in the state’s burgeoning Marcellus Shale region that even many in his own party supported left him open to criticism.
Corbett instead opted for an “impact fee,” in the process leaving millions on the table that could have helped desperate school districts here in Delaware County and Philadelphia facing austere budgets, staff cuts, and curriculum curtailments.
Corbett likes to boast that he actually increased basic education subsidy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the state spent a billion dollars less on education, and thousands of teachers lost their jobs, as class sizes increased.
Finally, Corbett at times has been his own worst enemy. Admittedly not a politician, he developed a reputation for verbal gaffes and a ham-handed approach to dealing with social issues such as gay marriage, attracting minorities to his administration, and a deeply troubling ultrasound procedure for women.
A push to hand operation of the state lottery went nowhere. Even worse, his opposition to the expansion of Medicare under the Affordable Care Act left 300,000 Pennsylvanians without coverage. His “Healthy Pa.” alternative is being panned as a bureaucratic nightmare.
It’s being said that in this race people are voting against Tom Corbett, not necessarily for Tom Wolf.
Wolf instead shows the one thing that’s been absent in four years of Corbett rule: Leadership. The kind of leadership that allowed him to rebuild his family company – twice.
The former state revenue secretary has been vocal in the push for an extraction tax, a 5 percent levy he says would raise $700 million.
Wolf has raised eyebrows by beating the drums for a shift from the state’s flat income tax to a more progressive levy, and has failed to come up with numbers to back up his plan.
But the Democrat correctly notes that six years after the nation slid into an economic abyss, Pennsylvania continues to lag, particularly in job production.
Pennsylvania has never failed to re-elect an incumbent governor since allowing the chief executive to seek a second term, instead opting to flip the party in the governor’s mansion every eight years.
We’d like to see that change on Tuesday.
Pennsylvania needs a new direction, in particular new leadership. It needs a person who can work with the Legislature to get urgently needed bills passed. It needs a person with a vision for a robust economic future, based on an education system that offers every student the same chance at success.
Tom Corbett had four years to achieve those goals. He fell woefully short.
The Daily Times endorses Democrat Tom Wolf for governor of Pennsylvania.