Despite control, fractious state GOP allows reform to languish
HARRISBURG — School vouchers. An end to teachers’ strikes. Privately-run liquor stores. Making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state.
These reforms professed by some Republicans when the party took control of the Legislature and governor’s mansion remain stalled 17 months later. That has given rise to restlessness among conservative activists and lobbyists for businesses.
As lawmakers prepare to pass a second budget under Gov. Tom Corbett, outspoken conservatives question why the Republicans have been unable to deliver key legislation many assumed would pass. With a summer recess looming, and then another for the November election, only 19 scheduled legislative session days remain.
“The Republicans have historic majorities but can’t even manage to bring something as popular as liquor store privatization up for a floor vote. What on earth are they waiting for?” said Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a Camp Hill-based group trying to elect conservative candidates and defeat incumbents they believe have gone soft on conservative positions.
Aides to Corbett and legislative leaders point to successes — notably, erasing a $4 billion deficit without raising taxes last year — and laws to address a number of conservative issues. Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, said the governor supports issues that conservatives cite, but his “primary responsibility has been changing the culture of Harrisburg from tax-and-spend to build-and-save.”
Critics say the change isn’t happening quickly enough. They spread the blame, from moderate Republicans who cause rifts to politicians who fear backlash from unions and other constituents.
“Why can’t we pass long-term conservative issues?” said Frederick Anton III, CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, who implied in a speech to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference last month that party leaders and some legislators are more concerned with re-election than with taking stands on policies to promote “freedom and liberty.”
“Why can’t we enact a (school) voucher bill? Why can’t we sell the (state) liquor stores? Why can’t we reform and reduce business taxes and why, for heaven’s sake, can’t we confront unions … on their benefits and on prevailing wage?” Anton said.
Anton told the Tribune-Review he thinks Corbett has adhered to a conservative agenda on taxes and spending but hasn’t moved aggressively on an overall agenda. And, he said, “The legislative leaders are moving too slowly.”
Fifteen to 20 moderate Republicans from southeastern counties, “who won’t vote for any of that” conservative agenda, often stymie GOP leaders in the House, said Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading.
“That’s about the size of it,” agreed Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, often considered the most conservative House member. “There’s a minority in the House Republican Caucus that is kind of the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.”
No quick resolutions
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, contends it’s unrealistic to expect quick resolution of every issue.
“It takes work. It takes time,” Miskin said. “This Republican majority has done a tremendous amount of work in righting a lot of the wrongs in Pennsylvania. We campaigned on changing Harrisburg and we have.”
Senate leaders intend to “continue to work closely with Governor Corbett and House Republicans on a conservative agenda which focuses on core government functions and allowing job creation to thrive,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. He referred to strict abortion clinic regulations signed into law, transparency laws, unemployment compensation reform and pending public-private partnerships for transportation.
Harley emphasized that “for the first time, the budget did not grow” in 2011. “By any measure that’s significant, since it grew by $8 billion and 40 percent during Governor Rendell’s administration,” he said.
Metcalfe acknowledged “you’re not really seeing the legislative product” to reflect a significant shift to the right among House GOP members. Still, he cites several new laws as conservative wins: requiring voters to produce photo identification, limiting the liability of lesser defendants in civil suits, expanding self-defense through the so-called Castle Doctrine bill and repealing a mandate for fire sprinklers in new homes.
But the undertow of Republican factions surfaced again on May 9, when the Senate passed a budget restoring at least $500 million that Corbett proposed cutting in the $27.14 billion budget he offered in February.
“They’re trying to foist spending upward,” said Republican Lowman Henry, CEO of the Lincoln Institute for Public Opinion Research and a board member of the Pennsylvania Leadership Council. Dissatisfaction among conservatives starts at the “grassroots,” he said.
“The only thing keeping this from bursting into open revolt is the fact attention is largely focused on the presidential race this year. But after the election, this could be a different story,” Henry said.
“I’m frustrated and I’m disappointed,” said Simon Campbell, a Pennsbury School District board member who heads a Bucks County group aimed at outlawing teacher strikes.
That bill hasn’t moved because lawmakers are too “wishy-washy” and they’re “terrified of the teachers’ unions,” Campbell said. “It should be a no-brainer. Thirty-seven other states don’t allow it to happen.”
Some conservatives note that Corbett hasn’t moved to take on unions the way Republican Govs. Chris Christie in New Jersey, John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin have done. Walker faces a recall vote on June 5, sparked by passage of legislation that took away most collective bargainng rights from public employees.
Wendell Young IV, the powerful president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in Philadelphia, led the opposition to selling Pennsylvania’s state stores.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union, last June lobbied against a school choice bill that Corbett pushed. PSEA President Mike Crossey claims Corbett already governs “too far to the right.”
“We need a governor from the middle,” said Crossey, of Mt. Lebanon.
Yet, others point out that Corbett last year signed union contracts with state employees that froze wages for a year and provided up to a 10.75 percent increase over the remaining three years of the contracts.
“I view what the governor did with labor unions a win,” said David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, a non-ideological group interested primarily in promoting competitiveness.
The issues conservatives push can provoke “strong feelings, on both sides of the aisle,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“They’re probably asking for too much, too soon,” he said. “You have got to develop consensus. … Corbett understands that.”
DiSarro believes Corbett maintains his credibility as a conservative by sticking to a no-tax pledge and reducing state spending.
Corbett has said he plans to address spiraling costs of public pensions after budget talks wrap up in June. Pensions are “a pending disaster,” Campbell said. “It remains to be seen whether or not he is serious.”
Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative and libertarian policy group, said Pennsylvania has “taken steps in the right direction” but still lags behind many states. He contends the grip of public sector unions has thwarted the kind of reform conservatives want.
The Senate approved a school choice bill, but the House did not muster the votes. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, pushed to sell the liquor stores and has a revamped proposal. A bill to ban teachers’ strikes is pending before a House committee.
“It is vexing to watch the governor and Republican leaders identify various items as priorities and then fail to act on each one of them,” said Bill Patton, press secretary for House Democrats. “It’s a stunning failure in leadership by the governor and his party leaders.
“Passing bills shouldn’t be this hard, given that they enjoy the largest Republican majority in more than half a century. The two-year session is almost three-quarters complete.”