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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