Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, in his third year in office, is seeing growing opposition to his bizarre budget proposals and his pro-corporate agenda.
In his budget address February 6, the Governor attempted to cast his conservative, pro-privatization program in less strident language than other Republican governors have recently, but his strategy appears to be falling flat. Labor and other grassroots organizations have been quick to note that his proposals attempt to pit groups of workers, their children and retirees against each other. After two years of slashing the budget for public education and forcing cuts and layoffs in school districts statewide, Corbett proposed to restore a portion of the funding, if he could persuade the legislature to make devastating changes in the state's two public employee pension plans. He has made "pension reform" his number one priority and proposes to change the plans from defined benefit to defined contribution plans for current employees.
He also plans to move ahead with contracting out the state lottery, privatizing the state liquor control board and laying off 5,000 workers as he privatizes the state liquor store system. The workers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The CLEAR Coalition, a group of public and private sector unions, issued a statement branding Corbett's budget plans "flawed" and built upon "false promises and false choices." Press reports have pointed out that his budget cuts have, over the last two years caused class sizes to increase in 70 percent of the state's school districts and led to the loss of 20,000 teaching and support positions in the Pennsylvania's public schools. AFTPA (teachers' union) President Ted Kirsch wrote in a letter to the press that Corbett "has no qualms about pitting students, seniors, and working families against each other over budget scraps, which are all that'll be left if he's allowed to privatize public schools, teacher pensions, the lottery, natural resources, and now the state Liquor Control Board."
In addition to his state budget plans, the Governor recently announced that Pennsylvania would refuse the federal healthcare funding leaving 700,000 residents with out health insurance coverage.
Corbett is being haunted by his 2010 decision to sign on to Grover Norquist's "no tax" pledge. Under pressure to take action to repair the state's 4,000 "structurally deficient" bridges and thousands of miles of crumbling roadways, the Governor has proposed to gradually remove the cap on the tax paid by gas and oil companies on the wholesale price of gasoline. So, while he faces sharp criticism from labor and people's organizations for his privatization schemes, he now also faces attacks from his former allies for recommending hidden tax increases. Members of his own party are distancing themselves from the Governor whose approval rating is hovering around 35 percent. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati has been quoted as saying of the previous two budgets, "We cut through the muscle, and we are in bone."
On February 5, the day of his budget address, the state capitol building was filled with demonstrators from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie and other cities opposing his privatization agenda and calling for full funding for public services and public education. Buses from across Pennsylvania brought members of groups including Action United, Alliance for Retired Americans, Decarcerate PA, Fight for Philly, Fight Back Pittsburgh, youth and student organizations, United Steel Workers and SOAR, SEIU PA, UFCW and others. Chants from the protesters reverberated in the hallways and in the Rotunda, "They say cutback; we say fight back," and "Ain't no power like the power of the people, cause the power of the people don't stop."
Photo: CLEAR Coalition