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Corbett’s window for major policy wins is closing

By   /   July 5, 2013  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – He might see it as the end of the first quarter, but time is quickly running out – if it hasn’t already – on Gov. Tom Corbett.

Last weekend’s collapse of Corbett’s ambitious budget season agenda leaves the vulnerable governor in a difficult spot. He still lacks a major policy win as he gears up for a re-election campaign, and he is left with a slim window – the fall legislative session – in which to get one.

Even conservatives are not withholding their criticisms.

FIRST QUARTER OR OVERTIME: Two diverging views on how the final days of the budget process played out. Corbett signed the 2013-14 budget on Sunday night.

Fredrick Anton III, a longtime Republican voice in Pennsylvania politics and president of the trade group Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association said Corbett made a mistake by allowing the legislature to head for its summer vacation without passing any of his priorities.

“I think this is very bad for all the Republicans. It’s very bad for Corbett and it’s bad for the Republican leaders (in the General Assembly),” Anton said. “When they come back in the fall, there won’t be the same pressure atmosphere.”

Anton said Corbett could have called a special session or told lawmakers he would not sign the budget, thereby ignore the “arbitrary deadline” of June 30 to close the legislative session.

He also should have laid more groundwork for his initiatives earlier in the process, Anton suggested.

But Corbett clearly feels differently. Though there were discussions among top staffers on Sunday about calling a special session, in the end the governor gathered everyone to his reception room, signed the budget bill and tried to put on a happy face.

“It’s the end of the first quarter. We have three more quarters to go,” Corbett said. He was referring to the fact that the two-year legislative session will, technically, not come to an end until Nov. 30, 2014.

Anton said Corbett was taking the wrong view.

“I thought it was the waning minutes of the game and we were going into overtime,” Anton said. “When they come back in the fall, they are starting a new game.”

Though the legislative session will drag on for another year-and-a-half, history suggests that legislative feats of any substance are rarely accomplished outside of the first few months of each session. Corbett knew as much when he spelled out his agenda in February; he called on the General Assembly to privatize the state liquor system, put up $2 billion for transportation funding and address the state’s unsustainable pension systems buried under $47 billion of debt.

By any measure, he struck out. The governor had the most to gain from this year’s budget session and he stands to have the most to lose as a result of inaction. He’s at or near the top of several national lists of governors least likely to win re-election in 2014, and nothing that happened in the last month will change that.

“He needs a breakthrough moment, and it has to come this fall,” said Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College.

Already, the business community is gearing up for a push on the pension issue this fall. They are rankled by the fact that Corbett kept a business tax on the books for another two years because the state needs additional revenue to fund the pensions.

On transportation, the administration is ready to keep up pressure by closing and placing weight restrictions on bridges over the summer and into the fall, according to PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch.

Corbett and House Republicans will surely keep up their effort to privatization state liquor stores – though without the immediate pressure of a budget deadline, that seems like the least likely of the issues to get resolved in the fall.

It certainly won’t be easy to get the gang back together.

Lawmakers will be even more skittish about putting up a tough vote as their next election gets closer. Corbett has to start looking ahead to 2014 as well – his campaign unveiled its first campaign ad, a brief web-only spot about job creation.

“What was hard to do now becomes harder to do in the fall and becomes nearly impossible to do in 2014,” said state Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, on Monday. He was talking specifically about pension reform, but he might as well have been talking about liquor and transportation, too.

Right or wrong, executives will be judged by their ability to lead and Corbett has come up short in that department. Though he laid out his agenda early in the session, he dropped the ball by waiting too long to engage lawmakers on the practical details like gathering difficult votes.

If Corbett wants any chance of getting a major victory before the end of 2013, he has to show some hands-on leadership with the legislature, Madonna said.

“If you want to win re-election you want to talk about what you’ve done, but that’s something Corbett is going to have a tough time doing,” Madonna said, though he added that the governor has not gotten enough credit for the things he has done: most importantly closing a $4 billion budget deficit without raising taxes.

But in politics, he added, the question is always “what have you done for me lately?”

It’s a question Corbett will have one more chance to answer – stay tuned for September.

Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.