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February 12, 2013 | By | Posted in Commentary

Commentary: Corbett’s budget challenges lawmakers, but can they answer the call?

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett issued a serious challenge to the General Assembly last week.

In his third budget address, Corbett called for a $28.4-billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. He included healthy boosts for education and public welfare after two years of reductions and also plans to tackle business tax reforms like setting in motion a 10-year incremental reduction to the state’s corporate net income tax.

Getting a budget done on time is always a bit of a challenge, but the real test facing the Pennsylvania General Assembly is the ambitious set of other initiatives Corbett outlined.

CORBETT’S CHALLENGE: It’s a bold agenda, but one the General Assembly may not be able to handle.

In the next five months, the governor wants to tackle transportation funding, pension reform and privitazing the state liquor store system.

Not only are those big issues, but they are what is known in legislative parlance as “heavy lifts,” meaning issues that force lawmakers to choose between two (or more) groups they normally like to play nice with and do something that will likely cause one of those groups (or, again, more) to fund an opponent when the next campaign rolls around.

I’m not convinced they are up to the task.  And I’m not the only one.

A state senator – a Democrat, mind you, but not a particularly partisan one – told me on Tuesday that he has never seen a series of tough lifts like this.  And he’s been around for more than three decades.

He told me he is doubtful the General Assembly has the stones – my word there, not his – to step up to the plate and get it done.

“These guys haven’t had to take a hard vote in years,” he said. “I don’t think they know what it’s like.”

He’s right.  These are the kind of issues that scare lawmakers.

It’s always easier to avoid a vote than face a scary issue.  And most members of the General Assembly like to take the easy route whenever possible, because the easy route doesn’t end with your crucial vote being plastered all over a campaign flyer and stuffed into 50,000 mailboxes by your opponent in the next election cycle.

But Corbett challenged them to avoid taking the easy route.

“Now is not the time to be timid in our approach. Now is not the time to cling to old ideas and the status quo. Now is not the time to make small changes and expect big results,” Corbett said.

And the heaviest lift of them all is, fittingly, the most important.

NO TOUGH VOTES PLEASE: Lawmakers keep their jobs by avoiding votes that may anger certain interest groups.

Part of Corbett’s overall outline for the year includes making changes to the future pension benefits of current state employees.  That, coupled with changes to how new hires are given retirement benefits, will start to chip away at Pennsylvania’s $40 billion-and-growing pension liability.

But the public sector labor unions already have vowed to fight it tooth and nail, and to take the issue to court if the General Assembly passes changes to pensions for current employees.

And though they haven’t said it directly, every member who votes for such a change knows the labor unions will paint a target on their backs.

That’s part of the reason why Republican legislative leaders spent most of last week trying to slowly back away from that proposal — all while still supporting Corbett’s agenda — in the legislative equivalent of how you might react if a Doberman was showing its teeth and growling.

No sudden moves, just keep smiling and walk slowly.

In both the House and the Senate, the refrain is that no one is sure whether “we have enough votes” to enact pension reform.  Again, it’s easier to avoid a vote than to face a tough issue.

But failing to pass pension reforms will mean deep cuts to other parts of the budget, and that’s a scenario that also scares lawmakers, who pretty much keep their jobs by delivering more funding, not less.

So, yeah, it’s a thorny issue.

Corbett has been criticized by many of his Republican allies in the General Assembly, loudly at times, for failing to lead during his first two years in office.  Since the beginning of the year, Corbett and his team have taken a noticeably more active posture on these high-profile issues.

That culminated last week with his call to action.

“Now is the time to embrace new ideas, and now is the time to be bold,” Corbett said. “Our job isn’t to explain why things can’t be better. Our obligation is to make things better.”

Corbett has to keep the pressure on, and the General Assembly has to be willing to take up those heavy lifts now that they have a governor trying to lead.

Politically, this is the beginning of the most important five months in Corbett’s tenure.

For the future of Pennsylvania, they will be pretty darn important too.

Boehm is bureau chief for PA Independent, an affiliate of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.  Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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