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Corbett seeks to turn up volume in attempt to win back governor spot

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett visits the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.

As he enters the final rounds of a fight for his political life, Gov. Tom Corbett said on Thursday that he’s counting on voters to realize he did exactly what they elected him to do four years ago.

Since the Shaler Republican took office, the state’s economy added 175,000 private-sector jobs, energy-sector growth made Pennsylvania the country’s second-largest natural gas producer, and he balanced the budget without increasing tax rates, Corbett said during a meeting with Tribune-Review reporters and editors.

But that apparently hasn’t been enough to generate voter support. Poll upon poll shows Corbett, 65, trailing his challenger, Democratic newcomer Tom Wolf, 65, of York. The latest, a Harper Poll of likely voters released on Thursday, shows Wolf leading Corbett 52 percent to 41 percent with 7 percent undecided.

Corbett’s internal polling shows him trailing by 7 to 9 percentage points, his campaign said.

Corbett said part of the problem is that he failed to blow his own horn.

“Frankly, I always was of the philosophy — and I certainly am changing that now — that if you do a good job people will recognize it, and it will get reported. Obviously, it didn’t work, so we’re having to spend the money” on advertisements, Corbett said.

With two months left until Election Day, Corbett sees his challenge as reframing many issues that pushed voters away from him — education funding chief among them. Ever since education funding fell by more than $500 million in Corbett’s first budget, he has tried to make the case that the cuts were the fault of expiring federal stimulus money put into the 2010-11 budget by his predecessor, Ed Rendell.

“It was cut before I walked in the door,” Corbett said, noting that Rendell cut state funding for education, spent it elsewhere and replaced the education cuts with one-time stimulus money. When that money ran out, Corbett said, he was saddled with Rendell’s cuts.

Wolf, in a recent interview with the Trib, said Corbett could have cut other spending or taxed shale gas extraction to raise the money.

Workers suggested cuts

Corbett said his record includes overhauling economic development grant programs to make them less subject to political whim and cutting $700 million in state spending, often by acting on the suggestions of state workers.

Those cuts are “getting pretty close to the bone,” said Corbett, who shied away from the no-tax pledge he signed during his 2010 campaign. This time, he promises to do everything he can to cut spending without hiking taxes.

Corbett said he hopes his attempts to grow the state economy will generate enough revenue that deeper cuts or a tax increase are unnecessary. The state unemployment rate fell from 8.1 percent in January 2011, when he took office, to 5.7 percent in July, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’re going to continue to keep the cost of government down as low as we possibly can,” Corbett said. He said tax increases are a certainty if Wolf wins.

“What I do know is, Tom Wolf’s going to raise taxes, and he’s going to raise a whole bunch of taxes. The people of Pennsylvania need to know that. The problem is, though, how much? He won’t give you the answers,” Corbett said.

Wolf, an entrepreneur who made millions in his cabinet business and served as Rendell’s Revenue secretary, said he wants to implement a 5 percent extraction tax on shale gas drillers, eliminate the “Delaware loophole” that allows companies to avoid Pennsylvania taxes by incorporating out of state and raise the personal income tax on high earners — which could run afoul of a constitutional requirement for uniform taxation.

“Tom (Wolf) has said from the beginning that people like him should pay more,” though he hasn’t decided how much, Wolf campaign spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said.

Align education with jobs

In a second term, Corbett would attempt to lower the state’s 9.99 percent Corporate Net Income Tax rate and push for an education system more in line with job openings.

Colleges and universities in Pennsylvania graduate about 12,000 teachers, but only 3,000 teaching jobs become available in the state each year, Corbett said, resulting in debt for many students who must go out of state to find teaching jobs. At the same time, natural gas companies can’t find enough truck drivers and welders to fill jobs that start at $75,000 a year and more than $100,000 a year, respectively, he said.

Any major initiatives will require legislative support, which Corbett has not won for some of his priorities. Despite Republican control of the state House and Senate, Corbett hasn’t been able to push through proposals to privatize state liquor stores and to cut public pension obligations.

Corbett said he might have been more successful with the Legislature if he hadn’t campaigned against the walking-around money his predecessors used to grease the legislative process.

“Could walking-around money have gotten me a few more votes — still to this day — maybe in liquor (privatization) or in pensions (reform)? Yeah,” he said. It might even be enough to pass the contentious bills through the House, though probably not the Senate, he said.

“So I’ve lost that leverage, but would you want me to change my mind and go back to walking-around money? I don’t think so. That’s not the right way to do it.”

Softer approach

If re-elected, he’d try a softer touch with legislative leaders, possibly inviting them to dinner at the Governor’s Mansion more frequently to smooth relationships that at times have been antagonistic.

“You have to remember, the first term, I was coming out of the Attorney General’s Office,” where he prosecuted legislative leaders and top aides on corruption charges, Corbett said.

That didn’t make him well-liked, he said. But as the clock winds down on his second gubernatorial campaign, Corbett is reprising a line from his first: that he’s governing with an eye beyond his next term.

“The last four years were building the foundation, not just for the next four years,” Corbett said, “but for the next generation.”

Mike Wereschagin and Melissa Daniels are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach him at [email protected] or 412-320-7900. Reach her at [email protected] or 412-380-8511.

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