Corbett line-item veto of legislative funding exposes divisions among Republican hierarchy


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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The relationship between Gov. Tom Corbett and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature took a turn toward the dysfunctional this week as they traded insults about leadership following his decision to veto millions from the General Assembly's budget.

It's not unusual in the Capitol for the executive and legislative branches to gripe about each other, sometimes even publicly, but the intra-GOP battle has left the governor's agenda in limbo with just four months before voters decide if he gets another term.

It also has raised questions about what a second Corbett term would look like, even if his party keeps control of one or both chambers.

It was a roll of the dice for the governor to cut $65 million from the General Assembly's own budget, a move that drew outrage but isn't likely to have much effect on how they do business. (Lawmakers maintain their own surplus so they can continue to operate even if budget talks go into overtime.)

On Thursday, Corbett announced he would sign the state budget but blue-line that money as well as about $7 million in legislative earmarks. He began by recounting his record in office, saying he had made tough decisions so that critical services could continue.

"The same, however, cannot be said of the General Assembly," Corbett said, slamming lawmakers for a "failure to address critical challenges facing our state."

"As an institution, the Legislature needs to refocus on the priorities of the people of Pennsylvania," he said, noting their inability to reach a deal on savings from public-sector pensions.

Terse responses from Republican legislative leaders showed just how badly things have deteriorated.

"The governor's actions today seem to us to be about politics and not about the hard work of governing," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, a conservative who can make a plausible claim to having done more to advance the governor's agenda than any other lawmaker.

Some lawmakers and staff have grumbled about Corbett's leadership over the past 3 ½ years, believing that his administration assumed an overly adversarial posture from the start and that he has not leveraged the power of his office to help with their agenda.

He got transportation funding passed last year, but that had been much more of a priority for the Legislature, and it violated his promise four years ago not to increase taxes or fees.

There's also the matter of the wide investigation of public corruption in the Legislature that Corbett oversaw as attorney general, before he became governor in early 2011. It resulted in jail time for some House members and aides, grand jury appearances for others and an enormous embarrassment for the General Assembly as an institution.

Pension reform and liquor privatization could be key elements of Corbett's re-election platform, but neither has borne fruit and this year's budget season produced legislation he had not agreed to beforehand.

Turzai said Corbett's leadership has not been sufficient on liquor privatization, pensions, charter school reform or reducing the size of the Legislature.

"You can't lead from behind," Turzai said. "You've got to lead from out front."

That was almost mild compared to the statement released by Republican leaders in the state Senate, who said Corbett's line-item reduction of their budget raised concerns about their ability to function properly and who warned that the cuts to earmarks may not be legal.

"The state budget process is not a game to be played, and vital government programs should never be placed in jeopardy," the Senate Republicans wrote, calling his spending cuts punitive.

"We are disappointed that the governor has not, to date, been able to work effectively with Republican majorities in the House and Senate to address important fiscal issues impacting our state," they wrote.

Corbett's big decision has shaken things up in Harrisburg, and his supporters no doubt hope voters, particularly independents, will cheer him on. He's down in the polls to Democratic nominee Tom Wolf and needs some momentum going into the post-Labor Day sprint and the barrage of TV ads it will bring.

But in a state where the 253 lawmakers are intricately involved in party politics, there's also a risk of alienating prominent Republicans whose efforts may be needed in the fall — and over the following four years.


Mark Scolforo covers Harrisburg for The Associated Press. Reach him at mscolforo@ap.org or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/houseofbuddy.

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