Pennsylvania's Corbett Expands Conservative War on the Middle Class

Swinging a sledge hammer, Pennsylvania’s first-term Republican Governor Tom Corbett, smashed into educational spending and state worker jobs during his first-ever budget address recently, following in the footsteps of his conservative cost-cutting confederates across the nation.

While Corbett proposes slashing over a billion dollars in funding for pre-K through college, he spares the Keystone State’s burgeoning billion-dollar Marcellus Shale natural gas industry from his call for ‘collective sacrifice’ to close a $4-billion gap in the state’s budget.

Corbett defended his Marcellus Shale stance calling it a source of potential wealth “not just something to tax.” That industry extracting natural gas trapped in Marcellus Shale is the same industry that coincidentally provided Corbett with substantial contributions during his gubernatorial campaign last year.

Corbett refuses to do what over a dozen other oil and gas-producing states do and impose an extraction tax on the natural gas industry. Texas, the state Corbett specifically cited in his budget address as a model for PA to emulate for this natural gas “boom” imposes an extraction tax.
Classroom overcrowding is already a critical problem before any new cutsClassroom overcrowding is already a critical problem before any new cuts

Such a tax could immediately provide Pennsylvania with $200-million annually, enough to cover the $48.3-million in budget cuts Corbett proposes for two state environmental protection agencies charged with overseeing the expanding Marcellus Shale industry, which is already under scrutiny for polluting drinking water wells and waterways.

While Corbett calls for massive cuts in funding for Pa’s higher education system because he said the “fiscal crisis” mandates rethinking spending practices he spared the bloated Pa state legislature now under GOP control.

Pa’s two-house legislature has the nation’s second highest number of members (253), the nation’s largest legislative support staff and some of the sweetest perks for members like receiving lifetime health care after ten years of service.

Corbett’s proposed slashing over a billion in funding from pre-K through college to close Pa’s budget gap continues the onslaught on the middle-class consistent with Corbett’s GOP gubernatorial colleagues in adjacent states like Ohio and New Jersey plus distant states like Wisconsin.

Pa’s Corbett, like Ohio Governor John Kasich, raised the salaries of his top staff members’ weeks before announcing his proposals calling for eliminating 1,550 state worker jobs and declaring no pay increases for remaining state workers.

Corbett, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pushes cuts in basic education funding plus reductions in public school teacher salaries.

Typically, former prosecutor Corbett proposed raising the budget for Pa’s nearly two-billion-dollar prison system by 11 percent.

Corbett, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, backs tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals – revenue that could mitigate the need to balance budgets solely on the backs of public sector workers and the poor.

Corporations in Pennsylvania provide roughly ten percent of the state government tax revenue stream much lower than the 38.7 percent from personal income taxes and 31 percent from sales and use taxes.

Corbett conflated corporations with individuals when cementing his no new tax pledge on the premise that “the people have no more to give.” Corbett’s own budget figures show corporations paying less in taxes than “people” do via personal income taxes.

While Corbett skips in lockstep with other conservative governors there is a distinctive difference between Pennsylvania and the naked ‘Banana Republic’ style antics employed in Ohio and Wisconsin against public sector workers.

Corbett and Pa’s GOP controlled state legislature, have thus far avoided the shenanigans of their Ohio and Wisconsin cohorts where GOP legislators shredded parliamentary rules maneuvering brazenly to ram through elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

In Ohio Republican legislature leaders replaced GOP committee members who did not support eliminating collective bargaining minutes before two crucial committee votes needed for final approval to that controversy measure.

In Wisconsin Republican legislators stripped collective bargaining from a budget bill inserting that economics laden process into a non-fiscal bill that permitted a vote without participation by Senate Democrats who had fled the state protesting Gov Walker’s planned cuts.

Walker and GOP legislators had framed the need for ending collective bargaining as mandated by Wisconsin’s budget crisis but declared that union right non-financial when finagling its elimination. Flip-flopping on the reason for eliminating collective bargaining convinced many that union-busting was true intent that Walker and GOP legislators initially camouflaged.

Corbett’s reducing higher education funding by 50 percent will force his state’s flagship Penn State University to enact drastic measures like closing branch campuses and raising tuition further Penn State’s president said.

Corbett, in his budget address, cited tuition increases as evidence of failure by college and university leadership requiring his funding cuts to trigger retooling by those institutions.

Overlooked in analysis of Corbett’s proposed higher education cuts is the prospect of them triggering closure of America’s two oldest historically black colleges: Cheyney State University which is one of the 14 schools comprising Pa’s State System of Higher Education and Lincoln University which is one of the four state related institutions like Penn State.

A Cheyney State board member said over 70 percent of Cheyney’s students receive some form of financial aid and those students cannot absorb steep increases in tuition that Corbett’s cuts would mandate.

Corbett’s proposed higher education cuts erects barriers at a crucial time when people in the economically hard-hit state need access to college training to help them get new skills, after they have lost previous jobs during the Great Recession.

Yes, a person can attain higher stations in life without a college degree. Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker, after all, is a college dropout. However, college degrees are generally required to even apply for most jobs that pay middle-class salaries.

Corbett did pull back from Pa’s prison building binge but his increasing of the state prison budget by $186-million, while cutting pre-K-through-12 funding, runs counter to wisdom like that contained in a 2006 study entitled “Saving Futures, Saving Dollars: The Impact of Education on Crime Reduction and Earnings.”

That study by the Alliance for Excellence in Education concluded that increasing male high school graduation rates in America by just five percent annually would significantly reduction crime-related costs. It projected $182-million in annual savings for Pennsylvania alone through such an approach.

Further, Corbett’s proposed prison spending increase seemingly ignores consistent studies showing correlations between lack of education and criminal conduct. Studies have shown that around 40 percent of Pa’s inmates had reading skills below the 8th grade level when they entered prison and 77 percent had no or very limited vocational skills or experience.

Corbett’s prison-spending plans does call for improving educational opportunities for state prison inmates, but that’s only after those persons are incarcerated, instead of working to keep them out of prison in the first place, which would save the nearly $30,000 per inmate per year that incarceration costs, not to mention perhaps preventing crimes in the first place.

Perhaps Corbett feels his plans to obtain public schools gutting vouchers will permit potential high school drop-outs to transfer to better performing schools…incidentally schools that cost more than the voucher amount will cover and schools that rarely accept underperforming students like potential dropouts.

While Corbett’s proposed draconian cuts in education rightly draw attention a larger danger looms from his seeming hands-off the private sector stance on Marcellus Shale that rock formation under much of Pennsylvania containing natural gas.

Evidence of that danger is evident in examining the histories of just three state forests in different sections of Pennsylvania covering a collective land mass more than twice the size of Philadelphia, the largest city in that state.

Those forests (Buchanan, Clear Creek and Tioga) occupy land once owned by timber and iron industries that clear cut all of the trees in those forests during the mid-to-late 1800s causing tremendous environmental degradation from frequent wildfires to soil erosion and stream pollution.

Pa began buying this degraded land with tax revenues at the turn of the 20th Century to undo the damage created by corporations that made fortunes and provided jobs but left state tax payers literally holding the bag for clean-up. Many of Pa’s state forests and public lands were purchased from industries that damaged the land for profit.

Experts say today’s Marcellus Shale extraction is causing environmental degradation that under current procedures tax payers will have to correct in the future.

“Corbett should at least collect some money for the reclamation of land and waterways that will be necessary in the future,” one economist said.

Corbett appointed his Lieutenant Governor to examine economic development and environmental issues related to Marcellus Shale extraction yet Corbett’s budget proposes eliminating 69 positions from state environment protection agencies at the very time when more environmental monitors not less are needed.

This onslaught unleashed against the middle and working classes by Republican governors and GOP dominated legislatures nationwide has sparked unprecedented protests across America during the past month opposing cuts in education, employment and environmental protections.

Many of the persons vocally participating in these protests come from normally apolitical middle-class sectors.

Protesters’ now realize how Republican/Tea Party deficit reduction rhetoric produces fiscal initiatives devastating to their standards of living while enriching the rich.

Targeted middle-class members now realize that these harsh conservative budget initiatives inflict fiscal pain they once thought were reserved primarily for the poor and persons of color.