Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, Stealth Tea Partier
After Obama’s 2008 election, a horde of conservative Republican governors won office across the country. The famously irascible Chris Christie vetoed same-sex marriage, refused to extend a tax on high-income earners, and denounced New Jersey’s landmark affordable-housing court decision, the Mount Laurel doctrine, as “an abomination.” (He was elected in 2009, but can be counted among the Tea Party wave.) Wisconsin’s Scott Walker eliminated collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees, a particularly bitter pill in the state that was the first in granting that right to its government workers. Arizona’s Jan Brewer’s anti-immigration laws were so harsh that Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberals and moderates in the Supreme Court to strike most of it down.
But one Tea Party governor hasn’t gotten much attention—Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett. He’s more reserved than his counterparts, avoiding political theater and national ambitions alike. But his cuts to state services have been comparatively ideological. All of his budgets have been austere, with cuts and no new revenue sources, even though the state has experienced an explosion of natural-gas extraction. The concerned companies enjoy one of the lowest taxes on production in the nation. But while tax breaks for a variety of industries are easily attained, state services have been repeatedly slashed.
Corbett’s first budget, for 2011–2012, proposed a $1.2 billion reduction in public-education funding and succeeded in getting $860 million excised, with the majority of cuts hitting low-income school districts. Cuts to basic education funding equaled $410 per child in the 2011–2012 budget and the $128 million in basic education funding the legislature wrested back mostly went to wealthier school districts. As the Education Law Center reports, “Since 2008, school districts have lost nearly $1.5 billion in total funding previously received from the state or from federal stimulus… The cuts have been up to ten times larger in poor districts on a per student basis.”
That’s also where layoffs were concentrated, depriving some areas of scarce middle-class jobs. That year in Philadelphia alone 1,600 teachers and 2,100 other staff positions were eliminated. A budget crisis in Philadelphia is leading the city to close 23 schools. State universities and colleges lost almost one fifth of their funding to the budgetary scalpel in 2011, although Corbett initially wanted 50 percent. (He tried again in 2012 and although the Republican-dominated legislature stopped him, they did nothing to roll back the previous year’s cuts.)
Corbett managed to escape notoriety because his budgets have focused on the group where political blowback is least likely: the poor. In the second half of 2011, at least 150,000 people, including around 89,000 children, were ejected from Medicaid in Pennsylvania. As Laura Katz Olson shows in her exhaustive The Politics of Medicaid, states often try to edge people out of the program by drowning them in time-consuming paperwork. Pennsylvania makes people reapply every six months (twice the federal requirement). Corbett ensured that the mid-2011 application would be particularly stringent. If recipients didn’t respond within 10 to 15 days they were automatically dropped from the rolls, even if the fault lay with the understaffed Department of Public Welfare, which issues the paperwork.
According to the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children “Many families indicated they returned the forms on time, and have receipts to prove it, but their children were still dropped.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that many families never received their freighted renewal papers and that the DPW failed to issue 30-day warnings to recipients that were to be excised from the rolls. Public outcry got some recipients reinstated, but this March, the Associated Press reported that there are still tens of thousands people wrongly being kept from receiving healthcare through Medicaid. The latest Inquirer reporting said that despite reinstatements of some wrongly terminated recipients, “ [child] enrollment [in state-run healthcare] has dropped by 93,000.”
But Corbett’s most questionable decision might have been rejecting billions of federal funds that were to provide health care to all low-income Pennsylvanians. (Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Jan Brewer all took the money.) The generous terms of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion would cover the entire costs of Medicaid for 600,000–800,000 eligible Pennsylvanians, although the state would gradually have to pay for a tiny portion (capping out at 10 percent of the newly eligible enrollees’ coverage by 2020).
Corbett has also eliminated Pennsylvania’s General Assistance [GA], a cash welfare program created during the Great Depression that gave recipients about $205 a month. That small sum helped more than 68,000 of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, victims trying to escape domestic violence, and people with disabilities (90 percent of enrollees received GA because they had a physician-documented mental or physical disability). It also helped recipients access Medicaid, which is notoriously closed-fisted when it comes to childless adults, even with disabilities.
As Daniel Denvir reported in the Philadelphia City Paper, many recovering addicts used General Assistance to pay for their stays in low-income recovery houses. Without the program, many of these impoverished addicts might have nowhere to turn but the streets. But what does Corbett care when half of those on GA live in Philadelphia, where hardly anyone is going to vote for him, anyway.
Corbett also messed with the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, instituting an eligibility requirement for the program, saving Pennsylvania very little in funds. If anything, it actually cost the state money because the program is entirely funded by the federal government, while the Department of Public Welfare had to retrain its caseworkers and reprogram its computers.
Earlier this month, Corbett issued his 2013–2014 budget proposal, which continues these trends, with a couple of new twists. This time around, he didn’t propose any new austerity measures, just flat-funding the university system and other services, essentially locking his previous cuts in place. Corbett recommended some small increases in mental health and public education, but only if the legislature agrees to support his dramatic downsizing of public-sector-employee retirement benefits and the privatization of the state-owned liquor-store system. The latter could arguably be a positive policy goal, although thousands of unionized positions would be replaced with low-income service-sector jobs. But the current bill seems to be larded with rent-seeking propositions with limited benefits for consumers. Corbett also wants to privatize the efficiently run state lottery, an act that is opposed by most Pennsylvania voters.
Lottery privatization isn’t the only aspect of Corbett’s administration that’s polling poorly. A February Franklin & Marshall College poll found Corbett's approval rating to be “the worst for a sitting governor in the 18-year history of the poll.” This March, Public Policy Polling found that only 33 percent of voters approved of him. (His erratic handling of the Penn State child-abuse scandal seems to have contributed to this unpopularity.)
The election is over a year away, and these numbers shouldn’t be over analyzed. Many of his more ostentatious comrades will likely cruise to victory, but, according to Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, “At this point Tom Corbett looks like the most endangered governor in the country up for reelection next year.”
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