Why Gov. Corbett Didn’t Get His Christmas Wish List

For Christmas this year, Gov. Tom Corbett hoped the legislature would gift wrap three things he could tie a bow on:  An education reform package that included school vouchers, state liquor store privatization and legislation addressing gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Unfortunately, the legislature played more Grinch than giver and the consequences of failure to act remain clear.  Inaction on school choice traps students in violent and failing schools, where they see a violent act every 17 minutes.  Pennsylvania loses jobs and tax revenue because residents spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying liquor in other states. And more jobs lie in the balance as natural gas companies are hedging their bets for future investment given the uncertainty of Pennsylvania’s regulation and tax schemes.

Willing to pass the buck to Santa Claus, the General Assembly heads for home for the holiday break having delivered no gifts on any of these issues.

Both the Senate and House passed measures regulating gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.  But the House version involves an optional local fee, with funds limited to, for the most part, uncompensated impacts of drilling.  The Senate passed a statewide tax they euphemistically call a fee that would fund a variety of programs unrelated to the impact of the natural gas extraction process.  The final bill can be only one of these things.  Likewise, the Senate passed a school voucher bill the governor supports, but it isn’t yet clear if the House will rescue poor kids in violent, failing schools.

Meanwhile, bills addressing the fiscal crisis in the city of Harrisburg, flood damage across the state, and tightening child predator laws following the Penn State scandal all reached the Governor’s desk.  These unexpected priorities, brought about by crises and national media attention, took time away from other agenda items.

With the Census results in, lawmakers had to redraw both Congressional and state legislative districts this year, or early January at the latest.  Both the redistricting commission and the legislative process for Congressional mapmaking are inherently political, and every lawmaker seeking reelection (or higher office) has something at stake.  The political reality of the redistricting process ended up consuming all the oxygen in Harrisburg this fall and left other good policy opportunities gasping for air.

While 2011 has been declared the “Year of School Choice” with 18 states creating or expanding school choice programs, Pennsylvania lawmakers punted to next year.  In the middle of the year, lawmakers claimed they had no time to pass school choice legislation with budget concerns, but would take it up in the fall.  When nothing happened in the fall, it has become “wait until next year.”  

In contrast, most of the victories in other states occurred early in 2011.  Why?  Most states have limited legislative sessions, with deadlines for accomplishments.  Pennsylvania’s full-time legislature and unlimited sessions tend to lead to severe cases of procrastination. 

Encouraging the lack of action on issues such as school choice is the political reality that Pennsylvania’s two party debate is not between Democrats and Republicans.  It is actually between the Union Party and the Taxpayer Party.  Unfortunately for taxpayers, the Union Party enjoys a majority in both the House and Senate on key issues where union financial and political power is threatened. 

If you want to know why school choice or other union-related bills have stalled, or why politicians in both parties are demanding new and higher taxes, look no farther than lobbying by union bosses.  During the last election cycle, the political action committees of the main government and private sector labor unions gave over $23 million to both Democrats and Republicans.  

These heavy hitters include the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees, which account for nearly 260,000 union members in the commonwealth.  The PSEA alone-after raising mandatory dues on teachers and school employees by 11 percent in early 2011-spent $4.2 million lobbying over the past year.

The lesson is this: With the labor unions working as the taxpayers’ Grinch, the legislature will fail to deliver not only this Christmas, but for many to come.  If Gov. Corbett really wants to put taxpayers, students and workers first, he must use his bully pulpit to overcome a legislature that is reluctant to oppose the Union Party.  Only then will his priorities become more than just a wish list.

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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation(www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.