HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The most notable elements of Gov. Tom Corbett’s legacy may have been cemented on Election Day.
His defeat by first-time candidate Tom Wolf saddled Corbett with the distinction of being the first Pennsylvania governor denied re-election in the 40 years that the state’s chief executive has been allowed to seek a second consecutive term.
And amid historic Republican gains in state legislatures across the country — including in Pennsylvania — Corbett was the only sitting GOP governor to lose his seat to a Democratic challenger in the Nov. 4 election.
Whether history will be kinder than voters in assessing the governor’s track record remains to be seen.
Corbett was elected in 2010 with a reputation as the corruption-fighting state attorney general who prosecuted several leaders of the state House of Representatives. He campaigned as a pro-business fiscal conservative, promising to shrink government, and he took a pledge against raising taxes or fees.
Corbett, 65, did work to curb state spending. He cut education aid and various social services programs, slashed business taxes and balanced a multibillion-dollar deficit without broad-based tax increases. But he also signed various tax and fee increases — including a massive transportation funding bill — while defending himself as living up to his pledge “the best I can.”
He governed at a time when Pennsylvania became the nation’s No. 2 natural gas-producing state, thanks to the booming exploration of the Marcellus Shale reservoir, and the state worked its way back from the recession.
His leadership style — he had cool relationships with lawmakers and eschewed deal-making or compromises — did not win him many fans in Harrisburg. Two of his signature agenda items — rolling back public employee pension benefits and ending state control over liquor and wine sales — stalled in the Legislature, even though the GOP controlled both chambers throughout his four-year tenure.
He held the line on state sales and income taxes, even though he struggled with long-delayed annual pension obligation payments and a structural deficit that prompted rating agency downgrades. Corbett’s decision to reduce public school aid — reflecting expiring federal funds, he argued — became a persistent lightning rod for criticism by educators and Democratic lawmakers, and a dominant campaign theme for Wolf.
“I promised exactly what I was going to do,” the governor said in a recent Associated Press interview. “I made tough decisions. I wish I hadn’t been in the position to have to make them, but they had to be made, and people were upset with them.”
Democrats overwhelmingly opposed his budgets, while Corbett’s efforts to advance the fortunes of private, parochial and charter schools frequently brought him into conflict with public school boosters.
Corbett cut hundreds of millions of dollars from social service programs, including the elimination of $200 monthly cash payments to poor adults unable to work and subsidized health insurance for low-income adults.
“He comes across as insensitive and even cruel. That’s something that’s really hard to shake,” said Randall Miller, a history professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Later, Corbett applied for billions of new Medicaid expansion money available under the 2010 federal health care law to extend coverage to hundreds of thousands more working adults despite opposition from conservatives.
Alan Novak, a former longtime state Republican Party chairman, defended Corbett as working within limited budget options.
“I think they did the most with those options that they could,” Novak said.
Meanwhile, Corbett championed the business community. He cut business taxes every year, reducing payments by hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and signed various top-priority bills for business groups. The natural gas industry applauded Corbett for blocking a severance tax sought by many lawmakers, and Corbett often credited his stances as the kernel for Pennsylvania’s economic recovery and its growing energy sector. Still, Democrats countered that Corbett’s policies had sunk the state’s rate of job growth to among the nation’s slowest.
Arguably, Corbett’s most far-reaching victory was passage of a law that will generate more than $2 billion a year from higher fuel taxes and motorist fees to jump-start work on a huge backlog of highway and bridge reconstruction projects.
Corbett often was forced into politically divisive social issues and sided with conservatives. He signed a law to make Pennsylvania’s voter identification law one of the nation’s strictest and fought a federal court challenge to the state’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriage. He ultimately decided not to appeal court rulings that overturned both laws.
Terry Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said Corbett’s legacy will become clearer after the dust settles.
“We often need time for perspective,” he said. “Judgments change over time.”
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