Sen. Jake Corman looks ahead in wake of budget crisis

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman speaks during a visit to the Centre Daily Times May 31, 2016.
State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman speaks during a visit to the Centre Daily Times May 31, 2016. nmark@centredaily.com

With a knock-down, drag-out budget fight barely in his rear view mirror, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, is looking at the next goal, and the next budget.

Corman spent 2015, and the first chunk of 2016, locked in a battle with Gov. Tom Wolf over what the state’s funds would be spent on, and where that money would come from.

“Everyone starts with the attitude that we’re going to get things done,” Corman said as he sat down with the Centre Daily Times Tuesday.

The governor went in with big promises about education funding for both school districts and universities, including a big bump for Penn State. Corman’s goal was to solve the looming state pension crisis. Both dug in, and months later, neither side won.

“It’s a big challenge. There are big decisions to make,” he said.

For Corman, the problem is that expenses continue to mount, but so do well-intended ways to spend more money. Revenue, on the other hand, grows more slowly.

“I’m willing to enter into discussions to balance the budget, but we have to do something about the legacy issues,” he said.

Those would be the good ideas that lawmakers had a decade or more ago, something that is now set in stone and doesn’t seem possible to change.

“We need to take that risk off the table,” Corman said. “It might not seem important today but some legislature 20 years down the road will say we did the right thing.”

It’s an issue that can pull him in different directions. Take Penn State.

The university doesn’t just employ and educate a ton of Corman’s constituents. It’s also his alma mater and an important part of his local landscape. So when the idea of hitting at the appropriation for Penn State and her sister state-related universities, Lincoln, Pitt and Temple, came up, it prompted a question.

“Yeah, we could go that way,” he said. “But OK, what do we get rid of next?”

He acknowledges that legacy cuts both ways. Again, it goes back to Penn State. Wolf’s proposed appropriation wasn’t just bonus money for Penn State. It was a restoration of the money cut out of the university’s budget under both Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Corman compares the state budget, and the push-pull of funding and spending, with taking care of a home.

“You know you should insulate your house, but you have to pay your electric bill. You make short term decisions,” he said. “It might be good to invest the money, but my answer is you have to have it to invest it.”

The new battle will have a new challenge. It won’t just be about who wants to spend money and who wants to raise revenue. It’s also who is running for office, because 2016 is an election year.

In the fall of 2015, legislators spent a lot of their time in Harrisburg instead of their home districts. School districts, counties and social service agencies in those towns felt the pinch of the lack of a budget. A similar situation in 2016 could cause problems.

Corman, however, isn’t that worried.

“No one wants to relive that,” he said.

In December, for example, Corman was back in Centre County just two days out of 23.

Corman himself is not on the ballot this year, but 13 members of his caucus are. The possibility of how the budget battle plays at home isn’t alarming, he said. Of those 13, nine are running unopposed.

“I think people get it,” he said of the legislature’s goals.

Corman had kinder words for the governor than he did during the impasse.

“He’s a genuine guy. I think most people would like him if they met him,” he said of Wolf.

He credited the problems of the governor’s first year with bad staff decisions, including former secretary of policy and planning John Hanger and former chief of staff, now Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Katie McGinty.

“I think he wanted to get everything done in the first year, and they were all ‘Fight, fight, fight,’ ” Corman said.

Changes have been made, and Corman said “you definitely see a different tone.”

But that doesn’t mean he thinks Wolf is the right man for the job.

“I do think we need a different governor,” he said.

Could that governor be him? Corman is only in his second year as Senate majority leader. In 2015, he pushed aside questions of higher office. Now, he hedges a bit.

“That’s two years away. We’ll worry about it then,” Corman said, saying he has made no decisions. He admits to pondering runs for other offices that have come up over the years, including U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson’s seat and a Senate run, but opting to stay in Harrisburg.

One place he has also not decided about yet? A summertime visit to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.

“I don’t know if I’ll attend,” he said.

Corman is a past delegate, as were both his parents, but he has been to just one convention, in Minneapolis in 2008. He is not a delegate this year.

In 2014, he was cagy about his discussions of the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. In a talk with the CDT then, he was less than enthusiastic about incumbent Corbett, who was polling badly against Wolf. As the presidential race rages, he was also careful in his comments.

“It is certainly different,” Corman said.

While acknowledging that both Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton are the likely matchup, he pointed to Trump and Bernie Sanders as the battery fueling the frenzy.

“Who would have believed that a multibilllionaire would appeal to the blue collar voters?” he said.

He also acknowledged that Trump was not his first choice for the part. That was Rick Santorum, he said, and after he dropped out, Corman’s hopes were for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

He won’t outright say what he thinks the election results will be.

“I only go by this: all the passion is behind Trump. I don’t see a lot of passion for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “But there’s a lot of time between now and November.”

What it all comes down to is change, whether working with a new president or a new governor, something he knows is never easy.

“You have to be willing to adjust and government will always be the last to do that because it’s too entrenched,” Corman said.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce