What’s Waiting for Tom Corbett?

Some big challenges — and possibly one "war"

He was ushered into power on a mighty wave, a leader who held great promise — and made even greater promises. Optimism that gridlock could finally be broken and that Business As Usual wouldn’t rule the day was bolstered by both legislative chambers being allied with this leader.

With majorities under him and the winds of change at his back, the forecast was for smooth sailing ahead.

And then the boat ran aground.

Turned out things wouldn’t be quite as rosy as Bill Clinton thought in 1992, when, two years later, the GOP came to power for the first time in a half-century. Or George W. Bush in 2000, as he watched his “Mission Accomplished” agenda get crushed in 2006, with Republicans losing control of the House and Senate.[SIGNUP]

And President Obama, who enjoyed the huge Democratic majorities from 2008, must now deal with a razor-thin Democratic–controlled Senate and a GOP-dominated House that saw the biggest Republican jump since 1946.

So much for “having it all.”

Recognizing the mistakes those leaders and their parties made would be a history lesson well worth the time of new Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. He assumes office with sizable majorities in both the House and Senate, and is embarking on a bold agenda to bring the state back from the abyss.

But talk is cheap, nowhere more so than politics, so Corbett will be expected to achieve victories right out of the gate. Fair or not, there will be no honeymoon for the new chief executive.

Corbett’s work is cut out for him, as he inherits a gaping $5 billion deficit; failing schools; the nation’s worst roads; America’s most hostile legal climate; municipalities on the verge of default; the second-highest businesses taxes; and state ownership of the liquor business.

And he has to solve all those problems without breaking his promise of No New Taxes.

After eight years of Ed Rendell, the expectations of a governor –small g — are extremely low, which is a point in Corbett’s favor. But the problems are so severe that the Governor — capital G — has no choice but to solve them, or risk total failure.

Here’s a look at the biggest obstacles Corbett faces as he sets his course for Pennsylvania’s future, one that will put him in direct odds with the titans of Pennsylvania’s Dark Side:

Education Reform/Teachers’ Unions
Throughout Pennsylvania, the teachers’ unions spent millions this campaign season— and got crushed. From Corbett’s 10-point victory to the House Republicans gaining 13 seats, there was not a single bright spot for them. But to think they are permanently vanquished is naïve.

Facing a brand new phenomenon called accountability, teachers unions will use their unlimited campaign war chest (obtained through forced union dues) to dig in hard. And their fights will be many, as they oppose school choice, pension reform, education funding cuts, and the outlawing of school strikes.

A specific landmine for the Republicans is the school choice bill recently introduced in the senate, which may be doomed to fail. It provides choice only to low-income students (with family income less than $28,000). This will prove unacceptable to many non-city legislators, who will incur the wrath of the teachers unions in 2012 while not seeing their constituents benefit from the legislation. And since the bill accomplishes virtually nothing, Corbett would be wise to push for the real deal, or risk getting the worst of both worlds.

Balancing the Budget
The trick here is two-fold: close the huge shortfall — on time — while not raising taxes, and accomplish that while navigating the minefield of “everybody wanting theirs.” This is not a partisan issue, since Democrat and Republican alike have become accustomed to feeding at the public trough, and that “free” money is not something given up lightly.

Just as all people in prison are “innocent,” every item in the budget is the most important one, and therefore should not be cut or eliminated. Since Corbett will have to make extremely tough decisions to have a realistic chance of keeping his fiscal promise, the only prudent course is shared sacrifice — everybody, without exception, feeling the pain. While that approach won’t make Corbett popular, common sense people realize, deep down, that it’s the right thing to do and will respect him for his political will and for not playing favorites.

But without a doubt, Corbett will be under enormous pressure from Harrisburg insiders, including certain Republican leaders, to raise taxes and fees, especially on Marcellus Shale drillers. They will counsel him to label it something generic, like revenue enhancements, and, will advise him it’s the only realistic way to balance the budget.

Corbett would do well to remember that most politicians have self-serving agendas; some even within his own ranks would love to see their new governor fall on his face. For those non-ideological hacks, it’s all about maintaining power for the sake of power, taking down anyone who dare overturn the apple cart.

Given that not a single budget was passed on time in the last eight years, Gov. Corbett will be a hero if he can balance the books by June 30 with no tax increases, no stimulus, and no smoke and mirrors — like the fake revenue from the failed I-80 tolls and the $800 million raided from the MCARE fund — which the courts have ordered must be repaid.

Legal Reform/Trial Lawyers
Trial lawyers are undoubtedly one of the most well-funded and organized special interests. Like the teachers’ unions, the trial bar spent heavily in the 2010 election cycle, with similar results. Knowing they can’t litigate away their electoral failures, they will continue to write big checks, since legal reform threatens their very survival (and the number of Mercedes in the driveway).

First up will be the Fair Share Act, which limits liability only to one’s share of the responsibility. Currently, someone with only 5 percent liability can be sued for an entire judgment just because he has “deep pockets.” Rendell promised that he would sign such legislation, but, not surprisingly, he reneged.

Other legislative action could follow, such as reforming medical malpractice liability, which, despite Rendell’s proclamation that the crisis was over, continues to cause the exodus of doctors from Pennsylvania.

Privatizing Liquor/Unions
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s unionized clerks just declared “war” — yes, that’s their word — on Corbett’s position that the government shouldn’t be involved in liquor. And that says it all.

Irrelevant to the unions is that the sale of liquor stores would result in desperately needed cash to help balance the budget, and that state government has greatly exceeded its role by its intrusion into the private sector.

But while privatization seems like a common sense idea, no governor who has attempted the dismantling of state stores has been successful. And the reason is simple: the powerful public-sector unions adamantly oppose any changes in their lavish benefits.

Well-organized and with large campaign coffers, the unions will attempt to maintain the status quo, despite overwhelming public sentiment in favor of privatization.

And perhaps the greatest fight facing Corbett — one that cannot be avoided or kicked down the road — is reforming the state pension plans. The costs to fund them are staggering now, but in two years will increase nearly eightfold. The money is simply not there, and if dramatic but fair steps aren’t taken quickly, default looms. But the unions’ mentality is such that default cannot happen in America, and will fight to keep everything the way it is, all others be damned.

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A large part of Corbett’s challenge will be keeping his party unified. Ironically, the solid GOP majorities in the House and Senate may well prove a curse. Truth is, he may have been better with only 106 or 107 Republicans (102 is the majority); having 112 allows members to pass the buck on tough votes while seeking political cover. And the possibility of factionalizing within the Republican ranks is not just high, but probable. That’s being seen already on the current school choice bill.

Keeping his Republican caucuses together will be the biggest test of Corbett’s leadership.

Bottom line: the Rendell era is over, and no matter how much of a mess he left behind, Fast Eddie can no longer be blamed. It’s a lesson Obama learned the hard way. People recognized the Bush mistakes and elected Obama to fix them. Instead of solutions, though, he chose blame, and the election results speak for themselves. Voters want action, not excuses.

Since the GOP holds all the cards, there will be absolutely no one to blame except themselves if things don’t improve considerably in Pennsylvania.

The outlook: if Corbett uses the Governor’s office as a bully pulpit, and takes his fights directly
to the people, he will be successful. But it’s not enough to be right; he must articulate his message and effectively communicate it to the people.

Folks certainly don’t agree with everything New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is doing, but he enjoys high popularity because he has kept his word, they know where he stands, and he clearly explains his vision — both in the public eye and legislatively.

Tom Corbett has often said he will run his administration in the mold of Christie. If he does, despite the unprecedented problems he inherits, he will meet with great success — and establish himself as one of the great Governors in Pennsylvania history.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX.  He can be reached at [email protected]