Corbett talks bipartisanship; Dems wait for proof
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is gearing up for his next two years in office and a 2014 re-election campaign by stressing bipartisanship, even though he acknowledges that he needs to do a better job of practicing what he preaches.
Many of Corbett's major legislative accomplishments since he became governor in January 2011 attracted just a handful of Democratic votes, if that, in a Legislature heavily controlled by the GOP.
For their part, Corbett and Republican lawmakers say they feel they had a productive, if fitful, two years of power-sharing as they cut taxes and spending while advancing business-friendly priorities during a difficult economic time.
But Democrats say they were virtually ignored while Corbett pushed a highly partisan and misguided agenda, and the record of the Republican former state attorney general bears out their dissatisfaction.
Nearly every Democrat, if not every Democrat, opposed his first budget and legislation that limited civil liability in negligence lawsuits, made it harder for school boards to increase property taxes, modernized state regulation of the booming natural gas exploration industry and required photo identification for voters. Only about two dozen Democrats , out of about 110 in the House and Senate , supported his second budget as well as legislation to refinance the state's unemployment compensation debt.
Corbett, who thus far is considered Pennsylvania's most conservative governor in decades, points to his administration's work on major industrial projects , helping revive three Philadelphia-area oil refineries and luring a potential commitment to build a massive petrochemical refinery near Pittsburgh , as examples of bipartisanship.
"I think that's what the people of this state and this country want to see more of," Corbett said Thursday as he listed his accomplishments at the start of an 80-minute interview with The Associated Press and several other news organizations in his office. "I think they'd like to see it in Washington right now, as we speak."
But Corbett didn't disagree that his legislative accomplishments largely excluded Democrats.
"We've got to work better on that this time," Corbett said.
Voter perception of him as a bipartisan governor will be important when he runs for re-election in 2014: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by 4-to-3.
In any case, bipartisanship may be a necessity since Democratic victories in the Nov. 6 election shrank the Republican majority in the 50-member Senate from 10 to four.
While top Democrats say Corbett recently began trying to thaw their icy relationship, Corbett hasn't charmed many of their GOP counterparts. Republicans have complained that Corbett is vague about what he wants, lacks the public relations savvy or personal relationships to win over skeptical lawmakers and seems detached from day-to-day policy debates.
Corbett, who arrived in the governor's office surrounded by many aides he brought with him across the street from the attorney general's office, seems to acknowledge some of that criticism.
"I think these first two years were getting used to the job, frankly," Corbett said. "This is much different than being attorney general. And I had to get used to the legislative process. I think we're getting much better at it. We'll continue to improve."
Democrats say they would be happy to work with Corbett, but make no bones about their feelings. They had virtually no contact with him while he balanced the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable while brazenly seeking changes in laws to disempower Democratic voters, they say.
"If his agenda is voter ID and killing public education, we're not going to be part of that," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
Sen. Daylin Leach, the Montgomery County Democrat who engineered the party's Senate campaigns, described Corbett's approach so far as ideologically extreme and rigidly partisan.
"I'm happy to work with the governor, but he's got to start embracing bipartisan compromise and problem solving, rather than ramming through highly partisan bills on a party-line vote," Leach said.
For starters, Leach said, Corbett should show good faith: He could at least partially undo the elimination of a Depression-era cash assistance program for the state's poorest adults or agree to a federally funded expansion of Medicaid under a 2010's sweeping national health care law.
In the interview, Corbett said he would like to have a better relationship with Democrats and he pledged to meet with their House and Senate leadership ahead of major legislative debates.
But he also made no promises to ensure that future legislation includes their priorities at the expense of his own and suggested that, at least on budgeting issues, a meeting of minds will require work.
"I know where the Democrats are going to be," Corbett said. "They're going to want to spend more money and they're going to want to tax more. I know that. I've made a promise not to tax more, so how are we going to do it?"
Asked whether he wished he had worked harder to attract the backing of more Democrats over the last two years, he responded, "I don't know."