Commentary: Education Matters to Pennsylvania Voters

 

Conventional wisdom may hold that Gov. Corbett fell short in his reelection bid because voters, and his own party leaders, didn’t much like him.  Some pundits will say he didn’t do a good job selling his ideas.  The fault lies not in his personality, nor his communications, but in the policies the governor pursued.

On Tuesday Pennsylvanians sent a clear message that education matters to them, and they endorsed a severance tax as a way to pay for it.

During his four years in office, Corbett closely hewed to a formula of budget cuts and tax cuts -- a little too closely for voters in a “purple” state.

It turned out that cutting state spending and revenues meant cutting services that voters rely on.   Middle-class independents and even many Republicans, particularly women, don’t much like state cuts to public schools that mean increased property taxes and larger class sizes. They don’t like cuts to higher education that raise the tuition for their children at Pennsylvania’s public universities.

Corbett’s policies to root out “waste, fraud and abuse” in public welfare programs, a popular promise for conservatives, meant, in practice, that vulnerable children lost their health insurance and seniors had a harder time putting food on the table. His strong anti-ObamaCare stance translated into the end of adultBasic health care coverage for almost 40,000 working families in Pennsylvania, who were just going about their business and didn’t see it coming.

As he promised, Corbett cut business taxes and ended economic development funding. He said this would produce jobs and prosperity, but it didn’t. Instead, after four years, Pennsylvania ended up 50th among states in job growth. 

Sam Brownback, the conservative governor of Kansas, followed a similar strategy of spending cuts and tax cuts, netting his state closed schools, laid-off teachers, larger class sizes, higher local property taxes and little job growth to show for it. Not coincidentally, Brownback faced a much stronger reelection challenge than would have been normally expected in reliably Republican Kansas and only narrowly eked out a victory. Both Corbett’s successor and the second-term Brownback will have large budget deficits to fill.

Corbett’s policies proved too far from mainstream Pennsylvania. He treated a severance tax on natural gas drillers as if it were a radical proposal, though every large gas-producing state has had a similar tax for years.  Even Corbett’s fellow Republicans have come to accept the value and inevitability of a severance tax in Pennsylvania.

Another key Corbett priority, liquor store privatization, just wasn’t a burning issue for voters, particularly after a long recession and a sluggish recovery. Having to make an extra stop to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner turned out not to be as pressing a concern for women as Corbett had argued.  

The Governor stepped up his efforts to tackle the cost of public pensions, but this issue never caught on with voters. After Corbett’s deep cuts to education funding and high-profile plan to divert funding to private school vouchers, many Pennsylvanians saw his focus on the pension issue as nothing more than another salvo in a war against public education. 

Corbett’s final months on the campaign trail closely mirrored his first, focusing almost exclusively on taxes. The irony is that, had he been re-elected, Tom Corbett most likely would have taken the same steps as Tom Wolf has proposed to close a budget deficit that could top $2 billion.

A severance tax will be a necessity, even with a Republican legislature. And it was a Republican legislature that began to address Pennsylvania’s corporate tax loopholes.  Republicans, like House Policy Chair Rep. Dave Reed, argued that a change was necessary to create “a level playing field for all job creators across this commonwealth, increasing our competitiveness, and putting folks back to work in Pennsylvania.”  Wolf’s proposal will finish the job the Republicans started.

Wolf has acknowledged that Pennsylvania’s tax system asks too much of middle-class and low-income working families, and too little of the wealthiest. He has pledged as governor to make Pennsylvania taxes more equitable and to hold everyone accountable for paying their fair share.

This election confirms that Pennsylvanians don’t want state funding of education reduced. Had they been comfortable with the cuts of the last four years, they would have re-elected Gov. Corbett. Instead, they voted by a wide margin for Gov.-elect Wolf and his commitment to reinvest in education.