Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is trying to sell his budget — and himself — to the Jewish community.
In a May 2 meeting that he initiated with about 50 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders in Philadelphia, he detailed his budget challenges and explained his plans to partially privatize the state lottery, reform the pension system and unload state liquor stores.
Many Jewish community professionals have been heavily critical of the Republican governor’s overall strategy of cutting or level-funding social services and education — without raising taxes — in order to balance the budget. His latest $28.4 billion budget would raise state spending by more than 2 percent and is considered less stark than his previous two budget proposals.
In an off-the-record meeting at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City and a follow-up interview with the Jewish Exponent, Corbett took some pointed questions over his opposition to Medicaid expansion and about the future of funding for initiatives like the State Food Purchase Program, which helps feed low-income Pennsylvanians.
By all accounts, the meeting came about at Corbett’s initiative. The former state attorney general from Pittsburgh — he spent the first year of his life in Philadelphia — is facing re-election next year and is considered by observers to be among the more vulnerable incumbent governors in the country.
Treating his speech like a classroom session about the budget, and peppering his talk with numbers and percentages, Corbett said he’d like to put more money into schools, teachers’ pensions and social programs. The problem, he said, is simply in the numbers — the state has too many financial obligations and too little wiggle room for spending.
“Here’s the question — are we going to raise taxes?” Corbett asked rhetorically in the interview with the Jewish Exponent. “Is it hard? Absolutely. Do I wish I had come in a situation that Tom Ridge had, or Ed Rendell, where there was money?” he said, referring to his predecessors. “Absolutely.”
He said the three biggest items on his agenda — the lottery, the pension system — which he said eats up 62 percent of all new revenue — and privatizing the liquor stores are all designed to improve the state’s financial health and lead to a greater investment in education and other programs.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, states have the option of expanding the Medicaid program to cover more residents, but Corbett has resisted doing so. Noting that the expansion program would involve state money as well as federal funds, he said he has serious doubts about whether the federal government would meet its financial commitments over the long haul. He did say he was looking into other ways to reform the system and was still studying the matter.
Since he took office in 2011, Corbett has drawn the ire of liberals and disappointed some of his conversative base for his leadership skills and some of his decisions, sources said.
There is political talk of him facing Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor in a Republican primary. On the Democratic side, Allyson Schwartz, the state’s only Jewish member of Congress, is one of several Democrats who has already thrown her hat into the ring for the 2014 election.
In his 2010 victory over Democrat Dan Onorato, Corbett won just 27 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls. He acknowledged in the interview that he’d like to see that number increase. “I would hope that the Jewish community would look at my record and see what we are doing. They are not going to agree with everything I am doing,” he said, adding that he came here this week in part to explain his policies. “It isn’t out of a philosophical, conservative versus liberal” approach, he said. “It’s dollars and cents, and I don’t think people can afford to pay more taxes right now with the economy the way it is.”
In the interview, Corbett defended his idea to reform the state pension fund by curtailing state contributions to retirement funds. He emphasized that the benefits of already retired workers would not be affected. He also said the benefits that teachers and state workers have already accrued wouldn’t be touched as part of his reform plan.
When asked about legislation under consideration in Harrisburg that would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in public schools, Corbett said he wasn’t aware of the bill and couldn’t comment on it specifically, but he voiced general support for the idea. “People need to know,” said Corbett. “One of the most haunting experiences of my life was visiting the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.”
Several participants in the meeting said they appreciated having the chance to share their concerns with the state’s chief executive, even if they didn’t think it would lead to a shift in policy. Amy Krulik, who runs the Jewish Relief Agency, the largest Jewish hunger relief organization in the region, had asked the governor during the meeting if he would increase funding for the State Food Purchase Program from $17 million to $24 million per year. Funding has been stuck at the same level for several years.
After the meeting, Krulik said that in 2006, at the peak of state funding, her agency received $340,000 from the program. Last year, it got zero, and is now relying exclusively on private donations.
She said she was encouraged that an aide to the governor took her information and promised to look into the matter. “That program needs more funding. It hasn’t kept pace with inflation,” she said, adding that private donations won’t be able to meet the needs of her 3,100 monthly clients indefinitely. “We really need state and federal support to fill some of those gaps.”
HIAS Pennsylvania’s executive director, Judith Bernstein-Baker, said she’d asked Corbett if he supported the Pennsylvania Dream Act, which would enable undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children to attend state schools at the in-state tuition rate. Bernstein-Baker said she was surprised when Corbett responded that he hadn’t seen the bill.
Richard Malkin, a retired physician who sits on the board of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, pressed Corbett on Medicaid expansion. He said he left the meeting feeling optimistic that Corbett would either eventually favor it or the legislature would vote for it, and Corbett wouldn’t veto the effort. “This simply is the right thing to do to insure more people,” he said. “It’s pretty clear both parties in the legislature really want this to happen.”
But during the interview, Corbett reiterated his doubts about expanding the federal program in the Keystone State. “How does Obama, and Congress now, make that commitment for two presidents down the road?” the governor asked rhetorically, expressing concern overall that with these shifts in health care, “you are changing this whole system.”