As lawmakers departed Harrisburg after passing a budget in June, there was, for once, little talk about the state's spending plan. Instead, attention centered on the legislature's failure to act on three of Gov. Tom Corbett's top priorities: transportation funding, liquor privatization and pension reform.
Corbett will get another shot this fall: The state Senate and House will reconvene on Sept. 23. But officials in both branches of state government face challenges ahead.
For Corbett, who faces re-election next year, those challenges include a litany of bad polls, including an August Franklin & Marshall College survey showing that only 1 in 5 Pennsylvania voters think he's doing a good job. Corbett spent his summer making numerous personnel changes: hiring a new chief of staff, communications manager and legislative affairs director, and forcing out two secretaries of education.
"I think this was more or less [Corbett's] summer of discontent," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall. Having turnover in such high-profile posts "is not exactly positive news," Madonna says, though he credits the moves with building a stronger team. Two of Corbett's new picks — chief of staff Leslie Gromis Baker and communications director Madelyn Lawson — assisted the campaign of former Gov. Tom Ridge, who was considerably more popular than Corbett is today.
"The staff changes are a decided improvement," Madonna says. "Whether [Corbett] can build on it remains to be seen."
Indeed, things get stickier in the General Assembly, where Madonna sees a "huge disconnect." It's not just that Democrats and Republicans are at odds — a common occurrence. Republican leaders in the House and Senate are themselves "basically not on the same page" when it comes to Corbett's agenda, says Madonna. "And there are personality differences among the leaders."
Those conflicts played out in the legislature's failure to pass a GOP-led proposal privatizing state liquor stores, as well as the collapse of a plan to fund transportation. While the Senate overwhelmingly passed a spending package for roads, bridges and mass transit, things fell apart in the House. Hard-line conservatives led by Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry) opposed the plan's reliance on a slight increase in a gas tax. And even as Republican leaders struggled to close ranks, Democrats pushed for higher spending overall, spelling doom for the bill.
"We just never saw in the House the same kind of bipartisan support for this that there was in the Senate," says Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans. "The two chambers are different for a lot of reasons — that's part of the beauty of our system. It can also lead to some frustrating outcomes."
Among those outcomes: Once the transportation funding bill died in the House, the Senate decided against taking a vote on its own version of a bill privatizing liquor stores. Progress on the two bills, each of which appealed to different parts of the GOP caucus, had long been linked.
"I've never seen anything like the divisions we have right now," state Rep. Robert Godshall (R-Montgomery County) told the conservative news website PA Independent in July.
Arneson expects the House to take up transportation and liquor again, and a package of child-safety bills born of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse case. House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy, meanwhile, says his caucus plans to push for transportation again, as well as Medicaid expansion, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. Corbett and conservative Republicans have expressed doubts about the cost of the expansion, which Marcy contends is "a no-brainer."
Madonna says there's a chance the fall session will yield some results. But making something happen, he says, "ultimately comes down to the governor."