2010-07-08 / Features

Will Corbett, Onorato Answer The Deficit Question?


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s Republican attorney general who is running for governor, is in a tough spot.

That was essentially the message delivered by none other than fellow Republican Dominic Pileggi, the state Senate majority leader, on what should be a major issue in this fall’s campaign: the massive shortfall that is likely to be the backdrop for the next governor’s first budget.

Talking about how to deal with it seems sure to be thorny for Corbett and his Democratic opponent, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, but perhaps more so for Corbett, who has pledged not to raise taxes if elected.

Asked Monday at a luncheon whether Corbett could live up to his pledge, Pileggi said aloud what Republicans in the Capitol have been whispering for months.

“Maybe that’s the next major policy announcement that General Corbett will be making, to show us how we do that,’’ Pileggi said. “He hasn’t shared it with us in this budget cycle. I’m hoping that he has some ideas. I don’t see how he can do it, frankly.’’

Even before the Legislature approved a recessionwracked $28 billion budget on Wednesday, Pileggi was already projecting an approximately $5 billion deficit in the 2011-12 budget, the next governor’s first. Such a shortfall would be the state’s third consecutive large budget gap.

One ingredient of the coming deficit is the collapse of state revenues during the recession, while costs for health care and prisons continue to rise with little relief in sight. Federal stimulus budget aid has helped cover some gaps, but that money is disappearing.

The cost to taxpayers of public pensions is also a problem, thanks to volatile securities markets in which pension money is invested and a 2001 law that added substantially to the pensions owed to public employees, including lawmakers.

Still, Corbett is sticking by his pledge.

“Tom Corbett is not going to raise taxes,’’ campaign spokesman Kevin Harley said Thursday. “The problem with Pennsylvania’s budget is not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem.’’

If Pileggi is right, the next governor would have to cut almost one out of every five dollars from the budget just for the state government to stay afloat in 2011-12. Candidate Corbett, apparently, does not intend to explain where those cuts might fall.

“When Tom Corbett is elected, he’ll review the budget, look at where we are and make the appropriate spending reductions,’’ Harley said. “He’ll look with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.’’

So can Corbett eliminate $5 billion?

Aside from persuading the Legislature, he might have to contend with public school superintendents, university presidents, county commissioners, hospital CEOs and others.

For starters, more than $9 billion – about one-third of the budget – goes to subsidize college tuition and K- 12 instruction, preschool programs, transportation and special education in public schools.

At least $7 billion goes to hospitals, nursing homes and others to treat the poor, disabled and elderly, and to counties to help the mentally ill, the mentally disabled and abused and neglected children.

Another $3 billion-plus pays for debt, prisons, courts and the rest of the justice system.

And those are just the big-ticket items.

Rendell, a term-limited Democrat routinely criticized as spendthrift by Republicans, has tried every year to pinch dollars in various corners of the budget and encountered staunch resistance from the Legislature, even for programs that cost just a few million dollars.

Advocates of cutting government spending have suggested that there are easily hundreds of millions of dollars to be cut immediately in discretionary grants and tax credits for businesses and other groups picked by the governor or Legislature.

Other say the state could get a one-time windfall by selling the state liquor store system – an idea that not even the Republican administration of then-Gov. Tom Ridge could push through a Republican-controlled Legislature in the 1990s.

Onorato supports new taxes on natural gas extraction and sales of cigars and smokeless tobacco.

But on Friday, he did not give specifics as to how he would deal with a multibillion dollar deficit, other than citing his experience running the state’s secondlargest county and saying in an e-mail that “programs that do not work or that are unnecessary will not be funded in my administration.’’

Onorato didn’t mention that, unlike Corbett, he has not taken a pledge not to increase taxes.

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