Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Tepid budget response
Gov. Tom Corbett coughed his way through his budget address Tuesday to a joint session of the Legislature -- at least eight two-cough moments in a 52-minute speech.
Democrats think he might be coming down with something.
Like a case of anti-health care.
That's because the Guv, between coughs, said that, for now, he's opting out of the federally funded expansion of Medicaid. It offers health coverage to an additional 500,000 lower-income Pennsylvanians starting next year.
Corbett's position is that although the feds pay all costs for three years and 90 percent after that, Pennsylvania's future share would be "fiscally unsustainable."
Republicans applauded. Democrats did not.
"He's walking away from $4 billion in Medicaid expansion," said Philly Democrat Sen. Vincent Hughes.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Phila., issued a statement from Washington calling Corbett's decision "short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible."
Schwartz is mentioned as a possible opponent of Corbett in 2014.
Several Democrats noted that other Republican governors, including Ohio's John Kasich and Arizona's Jan Brewer, have chosen to join the program.
Corbett's Medicaid decision, though anticipated, was the only real news from his address. His budget otherwise was offered as previewed, and was received with only modest enthusiasm by a Legislature controlled by his own party.
It contains no new tax proposals, unless raising the cap on the wholesale gas tax to fund transportation improvements leads to higher prices to consumers.
There was one sharp laugh and lots of muttering when Corbett said, "This is not a new tax."
But there was none of the draconian cuts like those proposed in Corbett's two prior budgets. This one seeks increases for public schools, for early-childhood education and for folks with disabilities.
Some increases are tied to passage of his plan to privatize and expand the sale of liquor and wine, and to resolving the public-pension crisis. Corbett called the latter "the single most important thing we do."
But privatizing hooch is complex and controversial, opposed by unions, many Democrats and some rural lawmakers who believe that market-based booze sales would result in less service to their constituents.
Also, it's been tried unsuccessfully for more than a quarter-century.
Corbett now links liquor privatization to $1 billion for schools. The same linkage was tried in 1997, when Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, sought to sell off state stores and give $1 billion to schools.
The pension issue, also complex, would affect new and current state employees and teachers. It is certain, if enacted, to end up in court.
Still, the governor, after facing criticism for not leading on major issues, is out front on three huge proposals, advocating heavy lifting on booze, roads and pensions.
While GOP leaders generally support action on all three, it's doubtful there's enough support to pass them as part of this year's budget, which must be passed by June 30.
House GOP Leader Mike Turzai said, "There's no linkage. We need to get a budget done."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delco, said, "The budget is the most important thing . . . hopefully some [of the other issues] will pass."
Corbett's proposals had Democrats sitting on their hands, and Republicans clapping only intermittently.
The speech was peppered with pedestrian lines such as "Pennsylvania's best days are ahead," "there is more work to be done" and "anything is possible when we put aside our differences."
And there was a strange reference to property taxes: "Residents of Bradford County will see their property taxes reduced by 6 percent this year."
A colleague in the press gallery leaned over and added, "Both of them."
The only energy in Corbett's address came near its end when he rolled out re-election themes: He's eliminated a $4.2 billion deficit without raising taxes, has attracted new businesses to add 100,000 private-sector jobs and has held the line on spending.
For many voters that's nothing to cough at.