Did Corbett Hike Taxes Or Fees? It’s Up For Debate
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – In politics, it can be hard to count the different arguments that frame one single issue, and that most certainly is the case with Gov. Tom Corbett’s pledge not to raise taxes or fees, one of his central campaign promises in 2010.
Corbett says he has remained true to his pledge as counties begin spending money from a new impact fee on the state’s booming natural gas drilling industry and pressure builds for Corbett to support an increase in a wholesale gasoline tax to fund highway and bridge work.
Not everybody agrees that Corbett has stayed true to that pledge, and sorting through the arguments gets complicated.
Different conservatives make different arguments for when it is OK to raise a tax or a fee, and those arguments occasionally even contradict each other.
Also, Corbett both promised generally that he would not raise taxes or fees, and he also signed a pledge written by the Washington, D.C.- based Americans for Tax Reform to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
“There are arguable differences over what’s considered a pledge-breaking decision from time to time, legitimate arguments,” said Sen. John Eichelberger, RBlair, who also signed the pledge. “Sometimes I think it’s more black and white than others.”
In February, Corbett signed legislation authorizing counties to impose the drilling fee. Counties approved, and more than $200 million is pouring into county and municipal treasuries and state programs in the first year alone.
Eichelberger voted against the bill because, he said, the drilling fee was really a tax that unfairly targeted a single industry and did not conform to his idea of a fair “user fee” for an essential and core government service.
Corbett and his defenders argue the “impact fee” does not violate the pledge, but they differ as to why.
Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, said the fee is imposed on natural gas companies, not Pennsylvanians.
Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based anti-tax group the Commonwealth Foundation, pointed to the bill’s requirement that counties – not state government – decide whether to impose the fee. But he took another view on whether it is OK to impose a tax or fee on, say, an out- of- state business then argue that it does not trickle down to consumers.
“There is no way to tax the guy behind the tree and think it will not affect me,” Brouillette said.
There’s also the idea that a pledge-taker can support higher taxes and still adhere to the pledge if he or she has supported tax cuts of bigger dollar amounts. So Corbett can point to his first two budgets, which are on track to reduce two business taxes and expand business tax credits by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Democrats have suggested Corbett’s spending cuts are responsible for school or county tax increases, something his supporters dispute.
Corbett’s touting the arrival of the money from the drilling impact fee led one Democrat to equate him to a lawmaker who votes against capital borrowing legislation and then poses for a photograph with a ceremonial check being delivered.
“You can’t lay claim to the spoils that come from the fee, but swear that you have no responsibility for the fee,” said Rep. Michael Sturla, the House Democratic Policy Committee chairman from Lancaster County.
In recent weeks, Corbett’s aides have engaged in talks with lawmakers on legislation that would remove a cap on a wholesale tax by paid by gas stations that helps pay for highways and roads. He has not said publicly whether he will support the idea, but he’s begun making a political argument for it.
Two weeks ago, he told reporters the statutory cap on the oil company franchise tax was “artificial,” lifting it is unlikely to boost prices at the pump and taxpayers do not benefit from the tax as much as they could.
Removing it could generate another $1.5 billion a year for the state and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are already voicing support it. Still, Sturla said he could foresee Republican challengers in 2014 mounting campaign accusations that Democratic incumbents who voted for it were guilty of raising taxes.
“I’ll go along with it not being a tax increase,” Sturla said, “if every time a Republican attacks a Democrat the governor shows up and stands with the Democrat and says, `Absolutely no way did they ever do that.”‘