politically uncorrected

Politically Uncorrected | Will they or won’t they?

September 17, 2013 

Will they or won’t they?

That is the central question before Pennsylvania lawmakers as they return from their long summer break. Will the Republican-controlled General Assembly finally pass any of Gov. Tom Corbett’s highly touted first-term agenda?

In case you have forgotten what that agenda is — and you could be pardoned for doing so because a considerable proportion of the General Assembly seems to have done just that — Corbett’s trifecta of “must-do legislation” includes road and bridge funding, the privatization of the state’s liquor stores and pension reform for teachers and state employees.

Not surprisingly, asking what — if anything — this legislature will do this fall, is a question being raised across the state. This, after all, is a legislature no one will ever accuse of overexerting itself.

So far, its one noteworthy achievement this session was passing a new state budget, something the constitution requires it to do.

PoliticsPA, one of the state’s leading blogs, actually surveyed its savvy readers last month in a nonscientific poll asking which of Corbett’s big-three agenda items had the best shot in the fall session.

The poll results probably produced few hurrahs in the Corbett camp.

More than a third of responders thought none of Corbett’s agenda would see the light of day (38 percent); about one in eight (13 percent) thought liquor privatization might happen; a paltry one in 12 (8 percent) thought pension reform had a chance; and slightly more than one in three (41 percent) saw transportation funding as having a chance of passing.

So, the smart money has spoken.

The chances of anything happening in the fall legislative session are generally judged slim to none. Few expect the legislature to do very much this fall.

The causes are clear.

The deep ideological and personal divisions that exist between House and Senate Republicans were in full view before the summer break. And the growing polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the House looms ominously for those expecting the legislature to actually legislate a little.

But all may not be lost. Yes, the legislature may be paralyzed by internal divisions. It may be spectacularly indifferent to Corbett’s fate and it may be willing to go down in history as one of the least productive legislatures in recent times.

But equally true is the reality that most legislators are not willing to lose their jobs.

The possibility that frustrated voters may rise up and demand legislative accountability can no longer be seen as a remote prospect. A most recent Franklin & Marshall College poll showed an anemic 11 percent of voters give a “positive” job performance to the state legislature, an appalling historic low. Put slightly differently, almost nine out of 10 voters disapprove of the legislature’s performance.

Even closer to home for most incumbents, the same F&M poll showed that almost six out of 10 voters (56 percent) said they would like to see most incumbents ousted in next year’s election.

A grass-roots revolt might seem a stretch in a state that at one time regularly returned incumbent lawmakers to office more that 95 percent of the time. But it cannot and should not be ruled out in the present environment of historically low regard for politicians in general and the legislature in particular.

The electorate is in an ugly mood.

In consequence, the possibility of a “wave election,” such as occurred in 2006 and 2010, which changed partisan control in the state House of Representatives, cannot be ruled out. Certainly, Republicans must now worry that Democrats in the Senate are now close enough to pick up the three seats that would give them majority control of that chamber for the first time in 20 years.

All of this makes aggressive action by the General Assembly on the Corbett agenda much more likely than it appears.

Despite their brave rhetoric, confident airs and endless arguments, Republicans know to a certainty that Corbett is in deep trouble for re-election. Right now he looms as the most endangered gubernatorial incumbent in modern state history.

Without some accomplishments to take to the voters in November 2014, he can’t win.

Hence, the central dilemma a badly divided legislature faces: Corbett may still lose even if the legislature gives him some or all of what he is asking; he will certainly lose if they give him none of it.

These are stark choices carrying profound consequences.

G. Terry Madonna is a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael L. Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State and is managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Readers may write to them, respectively, at terry.madonna@fandm.edu and drmikelyoung@comcast.net.

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