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Gov . Coma

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Someone once  asked the author Gertrude Stein what she thought of her hometown of Oakland. She replied: "There is no there there."

It seems obscure -as a writer Stein certainly could be obscure - but as someone who has been to Oakland I can tell you this: she had it nailed.

Now, let's segue to a meeting, due to be held this week, between Gov. Tom Corbett and his "kitchen cabinet," an informal assemblage of Republican power brokers who occasionally advise the governor.  As Angela Couloumbis recently reported in the Inquirer, the meeting comes at the bigwigs' urgent request.

They are concerned about Corbett - his polls numbers are down, his relationship with the Republican-dominated legislature is lukewarm, there are whispers he may end up being a one-termer if this keeps up.

These advisers want is a redo on the governor's staff.  Get some people in there who are more politically savvy.  Get the governor out to proclaim some of the successes during his first two years, such as balancing the state budget and getting it passed on time. Do something more pro-active to tell the Corbett story.

To me, the effort is misdirected. Seeking changes in his staff won't solve the problem because the problem is not his staff.  It is Tom Corbett.

Usually, it isn't hard to figure out why people run for public office.  They possess prodigious ego and drive in equal measure - and (one hopes) a desire to make a difference. For them, the power and prestige the office brings is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. They have an agenda, a check list of items they want to accomplish.

Tom Corbett has a one-item agenda - a slogan, really.  No New Taxes. 

(Okay, to be fair, he has a second item: Lower Business Taxes)

And that is it.  Everything else flows from those statements.  Everything.

As to the rest, the governor does not seem to care.  If he seems disengaged from issues such as public education, highway repair, environmental issues, welfare programs, helping the mentally ill and the retarded it is because he is. He is disinterested, detatched. Pick the dis of your choice. he's it.

This disinterest even shines through on issues he pretends to be interested in - items allegedly on his agenda.  One is vouchers for education.  He favors them.  One is privatization of the state-owned liquor system.  He wants it.  Now, you can agree or disagree with him on these issues, but don't waste your time.  He hasn't done anything - other than express the ideas -- to advance them.  Both are sitting dead in the water, their engines off, drifting in the vast legislative sea.

Corbett's disengagement helps explain the governor's inarticulateness. The man seems incapable of saying what he wants and why or offer rationales for his actions.  To put it another way, he does not do a good job of selling his ideas because he really doesn't have any.  (Other than No New Taxes).

This can lead to comical/absurdist moments in Corbett speeches.  One of my favorites was in his first budget address, when he whacked the hell out of the budgets of the state-owned and state-related universities on the grounds that he believed the money should go directly to the students not the schools.  Okay.  That makes some sense.

Then I looked at the budget the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), which does make loans and grants directly to students, and found he had whacked that as well.

How could you stake out that position and then undermine it completely? There are only two explanations - either you are deeply cynical and will say anything or you don't get it.  I almost wish Corbett was cynical.  I am afraid he just doesn't get it.

Example Two: PennDOT is a mess because the Motor License Fund, which pays for road and bridge repair, is in deep doodoo financially.  Solution: appoint a blue-ribbon panel, have them study the troubled fund and proposed solutions.  And it was done.  Corbett's blue-ribbon panel came out with a voluminous report that included many recommendations, but its bottom line is that we can't repair roads and bridges without additional money - to come from an increase in the gas tax or increases in license fees or some combination thereof.  (These were no bomb throwers saying this.  This was the a panel of who's who on transportation issues in the state.)

But, said panel committed an unpardonable sin.  It said the two dirty words: higher & taxes.

In this year's budget address, Corbett veered towards addressing the issue.  He said, in so many words, that the problem of how to pay for highway and bridge repairs is a serious one and his committee made recommendations and something probably should be done about this problem sometime in the future by someone.

Excuse the fractured syntax.  That's not me.  That's the way he speaks, even when it is written down!  Then he went off to Europe with an entourage on a trade mission.  I can imagine the puzzled looks on European trade ministers' faces when Corbett is asked a pointed question and does his Professor Backwards routine. 

Minister: We produce heavy machinery, governor, and we have to transport them on zee highways.  Is your highway infrastructure in good repair?

Corbett: That's a good question. To me, it can be seen as an objective that is worthy in addition to the financial constraints which currently are in place.

Minister (to translator): What the hell did he just say?

Translator shrugs.

Corbett: Could you pass the peanuts?

There are consequences to this cosmic disengagement.  One is that eventually the adults in the room will take over the proceedings.  That is beginning to happen more and more, especially in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the leadership has started to ignore Corbett and do their own thing.  They did it this year on the state budget, where they generally ignored what the governor wanted and restored money he had slashed (once again) from public ed and higher ed.  They did it last year on the issue of taxing the Marcellus gas motherlode (Solution: don't call it a tax, call it an extraction fee. Okay, governor?  Okay.)

Obviously, the governor cannot be ignored totally.  He still has veto power.  My prediction: eventually both chambers will ignore him on some issue and override a veto.

Can Corbett climb out of this hole?  Does he even realize he is in one?  Can he become focused and articulate, ala Gov. Christie; can he be clever and skillful in dealing with the legislature, ala Gov. Cuomo?

He can do it, if he has some there there. He cannot if  (as I strongly suspect)  behind those bright blue eyes, there is no one home.

-- Tom Ferrick


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