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October 14, 2010 By:
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Candidate Tom Corbett with Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Lower Merion Synagogue, Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach of Kohelet Yeshiva High School and Rabbi Baruch Lichtenstein of Torah Academy Girls High School

While the U.S. Senate race to replace Arlen Specter has produced a heated, ongoing debate on U.S. policy toward Israel, the Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest has generated relatively little fervor in the Jewish community.

Still, the next occupant of the governor's mansion -- be it Republican Tom Corbett or Democrat Dan Onorato -- will be confronted with issues that could have a major impact on Jewish institutions and agendas.

First and foremost is the expected budget shortfall: By some estimates, it will run as high as $5 billion. Without the federal dollars that have helped close the budget gap the past two years, a host of Jewish social-service agencies face the prospect of significant cuts. Dollars to these entities -- which include the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, JEVS Human Services, the Jewish Family and Children's Service, the Abramson Center for Jewish Life, the Klein JCC and the Jewish Relief Agency -- typically flow through state agencies, such as the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Aging.

In separate interviews with the Jewish Exponent, both candidates tried to allay fears that the ax is about to fall on an array of state programs.

Corbett, the state's current attorney general, said: "Social services are very important, and we need to fund them as well as we can."

Onorato, Allegheny County's executive, said: "The next governor has to figure out how to run the government and live within its means," but that doesn't require making deep cuts in the most important areas.

Pennsylvania's next governor will likely play an outsized role in determining the status of some of the top agenda items of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, the Harrisburg-based lobbying arm of Jewish federations across the state.

Dan Onorato with State Rep. Josh Shapiro at a Montgomery County event this summer

That agenda includes the push to expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, obtain guaranteed funding for aging-in-place initiatives and broaden the state's hate-crimes statute to cover sexual orientation.

"The governor really sets the agenda for the state," said media strategist Jeff Jubelirer, whose father, former State Sen. Robert Jubelirer, was the last Jewish Republican lawmaker in Harrisburg before losing a primary challenge four years ago. "It will be really difficult for whoever wins to be able to govern. He will have to make very difficult decisions that are going to make a lot of people angry."

Way Out West
The winner will succeed Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, one of three Jewish state executives in the nation. Both candidates are from Pittsburgh, which has contributed to voter apathy in the Philadelphia region, according to analysts.

According to the latest Franklin & Marshall Poll, nearly half of voters surveyed hadn't heard of either candidate. In that Sept. 29 survey, Corbett led Onorato by four points among likely voters; in an August poll, he'd led by 11 points. According to the latest filings in September, Corbett had $7.7 million in campaign cash, while Onorato had $3.4 million.

Jewish outreach has been relatively quiet, with smaller events trumping larger, community-wide programs. Last month, Corbett addressed about 50 members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and earlier this month, Onorato held a fundraiser at a Lower Merion home with a mostly Jewish crowd.

The governor's mansion is not the only prize up for grabs. Democrats hold a slight advantage in the state House, which analysts say could easily swing Republican. The GOP has a solid hold on the state Senate. The balance of power in the state legislature will have serious ramifications in 2011, when state legislatures will have the chance to reshuffle their congressional districts. The redistricting -- a process that takes place every 10 years after the census -- enables the majority party to set district boundaries to its own advantage.

On the budget front, officials at several local Jewish agencies expressed fear that if Republicans control the governorship and both houses, draconian cuts may be implemented.

Corbett, in fact, has signed a "no-new-taxes" pledge. Onorato has called such a pledge "hokey," but said that, by and large, new taxes aren't needed.

Jeffrey Pasek, board chair of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a predominantly liberal organization that focuses on domestic issues, warned that "if we have a cuts-only policy, that will undermine the ability of various social-service agencies to serve Pennsylvania citizens."

Onorato has argued for at least one new tax -- on drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region. He said that the revenue would go primarily to restore funding to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Corbett said that he opposes the tax, arguing that it would hamper the growth of a new industry that would bring jobs to the state.

Corbett didn't provide details in the interview about what kinds of programs he'd cut, but acknowledged that tough choices would have to be made. He argued that instead of new taxes, there needed to be more emphasis on efficiency.

He also said that he would be looking for input from the faith community on the best use of state resources.

"We can cover more ground if we don't overlap." he said. "We are going to need input from our service providers and the faith community. We are going to invite them to help us prioritize program funding."

Onorato said he thinks that funding can be maintained for social-service agencies without a tax hike.

No Need for New Taxes?
"There is room, right now, with current money," he said in the interview. "I am not going to allow a total gutting of the Department of Public Welfare, especially with unemployment running at the height that it is, with more people needing these services."

Federation officials and community leaders involved with raising funds for day schools are watching closely to see what happens with funding for the EITC tax credit, which allows businesses to receive tax breaks for donating scholarship money to private schools. When enacted a decade ago, it was considered a way for private schools to get indirect state funding without legalizing vouchers.

This past year, the total amount of tax breaks allowed for the program was cut from $75 million to $60 million.

Locally, 413 students enrolled in six Jewish day schools and 20 Jewish preschools throughout the Greater Philadelphia area received more than $1 million in needs-based scholarships in 2009-10 through the program.

Both Onorato and Corbett said that they would work to restore and even try to increase the funding. They each have said they support a voucher program, but haven't put forward a specific plan on how to pay for it.

The PJC is also pushing to have the legislature expand the current hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation. Such language was already in the law, but had been struck down in a State Supreme Court decision.

Onorato supports this effort; Corbett opposes it.

The two also differ on immigration policy, another issue followed closely in the Jewish community. Corbett supports the controversial Arizona law, which gives police broad powers to detain individuals suspected of residing in the country illegally. Onorato opposes the law, and insists that the immigration issue must be solved at the federal level.

"I think it's wrong for the states to be coming up with their own laws," he said. "We need a comprehensive, federal bill to deal with immigration -- and all the issues that come with it."  

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