Tom Corbett’s Last Chance to Be a Real Governor

He isn’t a helpless bystander to Pa.’s ed-funding crisis.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, left; hold a news conference in his chambers addressing the state budget-spending plan for the new fiscal year that starts in less than 40 hours, Sunday, June 29, 2014 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, left; hold a news conference in his chambers addressing the state budget-spending plan for the new fiscal year that starts in less than 40 hours, Sunday, June 29, 2014 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

Gov. Corbett may not be able to adequately fund education in the state of Pennsylvania, but at least he’s got a pithy new aphorism explaining why that’s the case:


“You can’t spend what you don’t have.” Sounds good. Sounds noble. Sounds commonsensical. It does an amazing thing: It makes a virtue of accepting decline, of living within one’s limited resources, and if Pennsylvania has to watch its schools fire teachers and counselors and school nurses, well, that’s too bad, because … you can’t spend what you don’t have.

Here’s a better — more apt — saying:

“You eat what you kill.”

It shares one quality with Gov. Corbett’s new pet phrase: In both cases, you have to conserve resources. All of us who pay taxes want government to be responsible with the dollars it takes from us, and not to take one dollar more than it has to.

But there’s a second layer of responsibility in my phrase that Gov. Corbett’s half-truism misses completely: The responsibility to go out and actually acquire resources. If you're a hunter, you don't stop eating if you don't have enough food; you go out and go hunting again.

“You can’t spend what you don’t have” implies a helpless passivity on the governor’s part. But that’s not the case, except as a matter of choice. “You eat what you kill” makes a new demand of Gov. Corbett — and forgive me for extending this metaphor too far — to go out and kill.

In this case, what needs killing is the governor’s refusal to impose a severance tax on gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. It’s a resource that has gone untapped. In good times, perhaps we could afford that kind of generosity to the governor’s campaign backers. Now, though, the refusal to impose that tax is both a constitutional and moral failure.

A constitutional failure, because the Pennsylvania charter is pretty clear on the state government’s responsibility: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” You could argue that the system isn’t always efficient — I wouldn’t make a counter-argument — but that failure doesn’t justify choosing to fail at the mandate itself.

And it’s a moral failure because, c’mon, it’s our kids we’re talking about here.

Legislative Democrats say a 5 percent severance tax on the Marcellus could raise as much as $500 million a year. That doesn’t erase the $1.5 billion budget deficit — we probably need to talk about overhauling the state’s dessicated tax system, too — but it could go a long way toward erasing the shortfall in education funding.

Gov. Corbett isn’t alone in his refusal to provide sufficient resources to fulfill government’s responsibilities: The modern GOP essentially  believes you can never raises taxes anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Which sounds great, until you realize that it eventually leaves most of us with kids sitting in dilapidated, overcrowded classrooms that challenge the possibility of providing a good education.

Under the bill passed late last week by the Pennsylvania House, 498 of the state’s 500 school districts will trim funding. Philly — already-cash strapped — would have to find another $16 million to cut. The result will be a nightmare.

So here’s a final phrase for the governor: “Man up.” Yeah, it’s sexist, but I have a sense that the governor will understand what it means. He has responsibilities to fulfill, and just a few days to fulfill them. If he is a leader — if he is the least bit worthy to hold the governorship he's trying so desperately to win in re-election — he will find a way to do so. If you can’t spend what you don’t have, Mr. Governor, it’s time to go out and get some more.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • GT12

    You talk about overhauling the tax system and taxing the gas drilling, but nothing about overhauling the pension system or what exactly happens to the money that goes into the philly school systems? WHERE does that money go? There’s no way you can tell me that they are managing that money properly when they need to close an 80 million dollar (or more) gap every year?

    • Allentown Poor Richard

      The Philadelphia school system was taken over by the state, so your question needs to be directed to Gov. Corbett.

      • GT12

        I’m guessing you’re referring to the SRC? Last time I checked, Arlene Ackerman had effed up “Imagine 2014″ pretty good. But I guess that’s Rendell’s fault for sucking so bad they decided to fire her with 1 mil in compensation.

      • billmedicare

        Pension reform and the unions are bleeding the city dry you low info idiot

  • Joe Jones

    Schools are usually seen as the cause of a problem; they are usually a symptom. They have increased utilities bills, transportation costs (including gas prices), building maintenance, and labor costs (employees also have to pay increasing taxes, utilities, home maintenance, and insurances). I’m not saying there is no waste. I’m saying that people, politicians included, are not considering the big picture, only the bottom line. True reform can never happen as long as politicians continue to use the education system as a means to political ends. This latest stunt is a perfect example of that.

  • Navydude

    Could this be more biased? Let’s see… Left/tax everything that breaths a and then tax the rain… Right/the economy is down the drain… No more tax… Geez Joel shouldn’t you just write for the DNC… Simple… Don’t spend what you have idiot. What do you do with your own budget… Resort to thievery when you come up short on your budget?

    • Allentown Poor Richard

      It’s a choice what is funded. Do you continue unaffordable tax credits to corporations or properly fund education?

      • Scott Jaster

        department of education will experience the largest increase in spending that any other department in the state, as it will increase 314 million to a total of 10.6 billion. Any risk of not reaching the education budget is in additional increases to their budget. And these tax breaks grant more jobs bringing in more revenue for the state. Its how Corbett was able to close a 4.2 billion dollar budget he faced from Rendell’s policies in 2010

      • Dan

        He is funding education. Federal stimulus funds ran out. Corbett has no control over it Rendell knew it.

    • Justin Darcy

      You would never speak this way to someone’s face. The internet gives you courage to levy insults at people behind the safety of your computer.

  • Navydude

    Don’t spend what you don’t have that is…

  • Scott Jaster

    This is the exact logic that is crippling our economy and sending America further and further into debt. How about instead of driving business and jobs out of Pennsylvania we actually attempt to spend money effeciently. Taxing Marcellus shale will kill thousands of jobs which will decrease our taxing base and ultimately decrease the amount of revenue coming into the state. In addition marcellus shale is already being taxed as its employees are taxed which is where the companies revenue goes. Maybe if the philly school system used the budget efficiently and actually sent the money into the classrooms instead of padding excessive pensions they wouldn’t need these constant budget increases.

    • Allentown Poor Richard

      Provide any verification of your statements. Or are they just your opinion?

      • Scott Jaster

        simple logic brings me to my conclusion. Democrats want increased taxes on alcohol and cigarettes to try to discourage their use. Increased taxing on gas from Marcellus shale will accomplish the same thing. It will decrease their profits decreasing their business and forcing the hundreds of thousands they have employed out of work. And roughly 2/3 of the education budget has been going into the pension, not the classroom. If dems really cared about childrens’ education they would concentrate on this ratio, but they dont. This is because they are using it as a political tool

      • billmedicare

        Over 2/3 of city budget goes to city and psd employees for salary and pension jackwagon . and that’s a fact

  • Dan

    What a crap liberal hit piece. Corbett is funding schools at record state level highs but it’s not enough for some. If pensions aren’t fixed PA will go broke. He is a real Governor Phillymag and he’s a huge improvement over Rendell and Wolf is a joke.

  • Charliefoxtrot

    Mathis incorrectly assumes direct correlation between spending and educational outcomes, a leftist chestnut that is cheerleaded by teacher unions.
    Tell me, how on earth does Utah achieve better outcomes with 50% less spending than less successful states?
    Ahh, the reality based community has much to learn about it’s assumptions, but statistics are no substitute for Emotion, it seems.

    Naturally, us deluded ‘wingers always point to culture/parenting/values (all the things that are held as heteronormative etc by lefties) as the difference in educational outcomes. But, naturally , Republicans are still seen as roadblocks to the leftist utopia that’s always around the corner, so what else is new?
    You could see the tears and sense of joy that Obama’s election brought, as His Presence Alone would usher in this era of the Hope and the Change/socialist utopia, only to have majorities in three branches of govt and STILL not realize heaven on earth. How disappointing things must seem, when His attempts to bring the Change We Believe in directly elected Corbett, et al, when the public finally understood what he Stood For.

    Never fear, lefties. You still have a firm grasp on the levers of our education system, our media, and the ever swelling state and Fed. bureaucracies, so things are trending your way, in what Marx called the “long march through the institutions”.

    I even hear the IRS (94% donation rate to Dem candidates) are even pitching in to help the Cause! Though they did just get fined 50k for leaking taxpayer info to a lefty activist group, so Team Blue still has work to do in our Judicial System!

  • billmedicare

    1/3 of the ghetto trash pays nothing in taxes! you see a problem? I do! welfare sucking leeches draining the system for all it is worth. Free food for breakfast and lunch. free rides on SEPTA. Free education. And these are the azzes that are screaming poor mouth for what? why? When these clowns start paying into the system , into the city coffers , start paying the teachers then we will listen. Over 2/3 of the city budget goes to union employees at The PSD and city level . This includes all benefits and salaries. Leaves not much left for city services. Anyone ales see a problem with the unions here? I say get rid of them!

    • Justin Darcy

      You are a disgusting person.

  • bill

    Every state has a gas severance tax why don’t we?Texas 7.5 percent..