Tom Corbett campaigned for governor as the good cop. Since winning the office, though, he's come across more like the bad one.
The guy who promised transparency on the campaign trail has put environmental enforcement of natural-gas drillers -- some of his biggest campaign contributors -- into the hands of political appointees. The guy who campaigned as our corruption-fighting attorney general -- the guy who promised to clean up Harrisburg -- has proposed a budget that asks nothing from the legislature.
Sure, in his budget presentation, Corbett insisted that "If government is here to share the taxpayer's wealth then everyone needs to share in the sacrifice." But he was addressing educators at that point -- not the legislators sitting in front of him. School districts face more than $1 billion in cuts statewide, but his budget leaves the state legislature's funding almost completely intact. Corbett's main legislative reform involved eliminating "Walking Around Money" -- discretionary funds legislators use to finance special projects within their districts. Which figures: Unlike the other perks the legislature enjoys, WAMS at least offer some hope that the rest of us may enjoy some legislative largesse.
As for government openness, when Corbett held a press conference last week, uniformed guards demanded to see press credentials. Members of the public were barred from the event; initially, so was a legislative staffer.
"We're seeing a pattern of an imperial governor here," state Sen. Jim Ferlo said during an April 4 teleconference with reporters.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. As attorney general, Corbett tried to subpoena the identities of two anonymous Twitter accounts that mocked his anti-corruption prosecutions. Is it any surprise that as governor, his initial impulse was to make members of the mainstream media produce their credentials too? Corbett's opposition to taxing natural gas was similarly a matter of record during his election, as were the campaign contributions.
In any case, it's not as if he'd be the first Republican to pull a switcheroo. How many times have Republicans campaigned on promises of passing term limits -- limits which never are enacted? How stunning is it, really, that the allegedly grassroots Tea Party movement turns out to have heavy financing from corporate millionaires? The only surprise is that people keep falling for it.
Corbett doesn't have to be one of those: He actually looks pretty good compared to others in his party. Much of Pennsylvania's budget plight is the fault of Tea Party pols in Washington, D.C.; many of Corbett's cuts actually stem from federal spending cuts his GOP brethren have demanded. And unlike Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Corbett hasn't challenged labor head-on by trying to overturn collective-bargaining rights. His budget even proposes increased funding for the Department of Public Welfare.
What's more, legislators have made it clear that some of his most controversial cuts -- like the 50 percent reduction in support for Penn State, Pitt and other state-supported universities -- will be scaled back. No surprise there, of course: Massive institutions like Pitt are special interests, too -- just like the natural-gas industry, and with the same non-existent tax burden.
So yeah, things could be worse. The problem is, they still could be. For starters, don't be shocked if Republicans pay for increased higher-ed funding by reversing Corbett's welfare hikes.
Or consider the administration's sneaky effort to protect the natural-gas industry from environmental regulation. Under that policy, whenever environmental regulations concerned Marcellus Shale drillers, enforcement is to be decided by a handful of political appointees. After headlines erupted, administration officials insisted this was only a temporary measure, until the state devised uniform standards for new drilling techniques.
To some of us -- like Ferlo -- a lack of uniform standards is a reason for putting the brakes on drilling itself, not on the regulation of it. But clearly that ain't in the cards: Corbett has a task force reviewing natural-gas policy, but it's dominated by industry execs. His budget, meanwhile, includes a section on regulatory reform which espouses "[f]riction-free processes for government interaction with job creators."
It's not clear what "friction-free processes are supposed to be," exactly. Maybe before Corbett's administration really screws us, it's going to use a bit of lubricant. In the end, that may be the biggest difference between a moderate Republican and the other kind.