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, following in the footsteps of his conservative cost-cutting confederates across the nation.

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

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—the same industry that low and behold last year lavished him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to his gubernatorial campaign.

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.

Corbett’s slashing of over a billion dollars in funding education to close the state’s budget gap continues an onslaught on the middle-class consistent in line with Corbett’s GOP gubernatorial colleagues in the adjacent states of Ohio and New Jersey and further west in Wisconsin.

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

Corbett, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pushes cuts in basic education funding plus reductions in public school teacher salaries while raising Pennsylvania’s nearly two-billion-dollar prison system budget by 11 percent—this despite consistent studies showing correlations between lack of education and criminal conduct.

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 revenue stream, which is much lower than the 38.7 percent derived from personal income taxes and 31 percent derived from sales and use taxes.

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

Corbett and Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled state legislature have, at least thus far, avoided the shenanigans of their Ohio and Wisconsin cohorts. GOP legislators in those two states shredded parliamentary rules, maneuvering brazenly to ram through an elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

In Ohio, Republican legislature leaders replaced committee members who did not supporting eliminating collective bargaining only minutes before two crucial votes. 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 requiring a super-majority quorum, with participation by Senate Democrats, who had fled the state to block Walker’s actions.

Corbett’s cutting of higher education funding by 50 percent will nonetheless force the state’s flagship Penn State University to take drastic measures like closing branch campuses and raising tuition.

Furthermore, Corbett’s proposed higher education cuts could possibility trigger the 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, like Penn State, is one of the four so-called state-related institutions.

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

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.

Former prosecutor Corbett has pulled back from a plan to build more new prisons, 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.

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.

While Corbett’s call for draconian cuts in education are rightly drawing attention, a larger danger looms from his seeming hands-off stance on the Marcellus Shale, the rock formations underying much of Pennsylvania which are beginning to be exploited for the natural gas contained in them.

Evidence of that danger is evident in the histories of just three state forests in the central, north central and northwest sections of Pennsylvania which cover a collective land mass more than twice the size of Philadelphia, the state’s largest city.

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

Pennsylvania began buying this degraded land withpublic funds at the turn of the 20th Century, in an effort to undo the damage created by corporations that had made fortunes, provided jobs but leaving state taxpayers holding the bag for clean-up.

Experts say today’s Marcellus Shale extraction is causing environmental degradation that under current procedures taxpayers will also have to pay to repair in years to come.

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

Corbett has appointed his Lieutenant Governor to examine issues related to Marcellus Shale extraction, yet his budget proposes that 69 positions in state environmental protection agencies be eliminated at a time when more employees, not fewer, are needed.

The 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 in opposition to cuts in education, employment and environmental protection.

Many of those who are vocally participating in these protests come from normally apolitical middle-class sectors.

Protestors now realize how Republican/Tea Party deficit-reduction rhetoric produces fiscal initiatives that will devastate their standards of living, inflicting fiscal pain that many in the middle-class once thought were reserved for the poor and persons of color.