Sen. Jake Corman hopes to work with Gov. Tom Wolf on Pennsylvania budget, pension reform

Jake Corman, state senate majority leader, talks with the Centre Daily Times editorial board on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.
Jake Corman, state senate majority leader, talks with the Centre Daily Times editorial board on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. CDT photo

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, has nice things to say about Pennsylvania’s new governor.

“He’s an affable man. He wants to do the right thing,” he told the Centre Daily Times editorial board as he sat down to talk about issues important to the state and his district.

That doesn’t mean he agrees with Democrat Tom Wolf’s plans, especially when it comes to money. Lately Corman has been doing a lot of talking about the Republican-dominated Senate’s requirements to reach an accord on spending in the coming year.

A former revenue secretary, Wolf’s proposal is heavy on things that he says will stimulate the economy, like $1 billion for education funding with a $49.6 million bump in Penn State’s appropriation and significant boosts to local school districts.

But Corman said that would require an $8 billion increase in taxes. The senator said that under Wolf’s proposal, a litany of things that have been tax exempt would now have an added cost, like home health services, day care and even toothpaste. That is all part of the $8 billion he says Wolf’s plan needs to fund everything it promises.

Corman, on the other hand, said a budget can be attacked two ways. Instead of focusing on funding, he prefers to address reducing expenditures, and he cites former governor Tom Corbett as a model with his 2011 “right-sized” budget.

“The problem he couldn’t get down was mandated spending. Revenue wasn’t keeping up,” Corman said.

Mandated spending is a list of things the government can’t cut out, like paying for prisons and the looming threat of state employees’ pensions. Pennsylvania has labored under a growing pension funding crisis after major changes in 2001 to benefits, vesting and contributions became a staggering problem months later when the stock market turned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Subsequent attempts to correct the problem have still left the state and school districts with huge bills and potential problems.

Corman says that there can be no question about addressing the pension issue this year.

“Pensions drive everything. It’s such a behemoth,” he said.

In a perfect world, Corman would want to secure the funds to stabilize the pension system without doing some of what has been done in the past, attempting to do so by trying to predict Wall Street outcomes. What is needed, he said, is “major structural change.” Negotiating on Wolf’s budget might be how he gets there.

“Compromise means you are going to sign things that you don’t like and I’m going to pass things I don’t like,” Corman said he told the governor recently.

Corman’s increasing power position in the General Assembly — he recently became the third in seniority as well as taking the leadership role — has meant that he has also been meeting some power players. He said he recently met Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who made a splash as a new governor on the national scene with his aggressive union-busting stance. Is that one he wants to emulate as he tackles the pension issue? Not necessarily.

“I respect what he did there,” Corman said. “We have our own issues.”

All in all, Corman seems optimistic about a budget and a good working relationship between executive and legislature, red and blue in Pennsylvania heading into the first year of the Wolf administration.

“You can do a lot without passing a bill just by making government work better,” he said.