Thomas Fitzgerald: Corbett goes 0-3 on initiatives - but will voters care?

HARRISBURG - For a moment Sunday night, Gov. Corbett sounded like a man trying to convince himself of something. If he just repeated the right incantation enough times, what he wished for would become reality.

"We are making progress," he said. "We are moving forward."

Pennsylvania's bound 2013-14 budget, the size of a small city's phone book, was sitting on the scuffed oak desk in the Governor's Reception Room, ready for him to sign - on time for the third year in a row, again with no tax increases!

But the legislature had failed to enact any of Corbett's three big policy initiatives: an infusion of cash to fix crumbling roads and bridges and to support public transit; privatizing the sale of wine and hard liquor; and making changes to reduce the escalating cost of teachers' and state employees' pensions.

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The setback for his agenda raised questions about Corbett's reelection prospects in 2014. Either it will deal another blow to a chief executive with already-anemic approval ratings in statewide opinion polls, or in the long run such machinations may matter little to regular voters who are seeing slow but steady improvement in the economy.

At the very least, analysts said, the stakes have been raised for the fall, when lawmakers have said they will revisit transportation funding, liquor, and pensions.

Corbett had set out difficult goals, and some of them have eluded several governors. Truth be told, he got liquor reform through the House, farther than it had ever progressed. Still, Corbett was 0 for 3, notwithstanding the fact that his fellow Republicans control both the House and Senate. He was left to make the best of things.

"Corbett is not even governor of his own party," scoffed former state environmental secretary John Hanger, one of the Democrats vying for their party's 2014 nomination to challenge the governor.

Some Republican leaders, who were in Hershey for a state party meeting and picnic over the weekend, might be hard-pressed to disagree with Hanger. "Things were bleak before, but this is a complete debacle for the governor, perhaps fatal," said one GOP operative who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations with other Republicans. "There's no energy in the party for him."

Others are more sanguine about his prospects, saying that voters are mostly impervious to the legislative score-keeping that obsesses the media and state political insiders.

"Gov. Corbett is going to go on the road the next couple of months, and he's good outside the Beltway," said David Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council. "People out there like him. They don't read polls, and they don't care. They don't know that they've been told not to like him."

In this view, Corbett's affable, regular-guy persona is a big asset. If anything, Patti said, the governor's cautious political handlers should let him off the leash more, in the same way that advisers to President Ronald Reagan in an earlier time decided to "let Reagan be Reagan."

Several Corbett backers also mentioned the reality that the incumbent will be able to spend millions of dollars in campaign money on TV ads produced by one of the best media consultants in the business, John Brabender, in order to tell his story.

Corbett took a magnanimous tone Sunday toward the legislature that had stymied him, with an array of House Republicans flanking him. Senate GOP leaders had gone home earlier that night; they say no one told them the Governor's Office was staging a signing ceremony.

As for fate of the Big Three initiatives, "These aren't easy things to do," Corbett said. There are "many interest groups with many, many different perspectives . . . so I can't be disappointed."

He thanked the legislators for their hard work and expressed hope for the fall. "Let's get it done," Corbett said.

History says that governors usually need the leverage of the budget process to push big agenda items through, and that legislatures typically accomplish less in an election year. Come September, lawmakers will be just three months from 2014, when they will face the voters - as will Corbett.

 


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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