Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett: Experienced Leadership For Economic Growth

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Tom Corbett, Governor of Pennsylvania.

Editor: Please tell us about your background and experiences that contribute to your agenda as Governor of Pennsylvania.

Corbett: I was raised in Shaler Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh. My father was an attorney for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and he worked on development issues connected with the first "Pittsburgh Renaissance," when public-private partnerships were used to redevelop and improve the city's downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. I attended Lebanon Valley College and graduated in 1971 and then took a job as a high school civics teacher in a nearby district. After a year, and while completing military service, I attended St. Mary's College of Law in Texas.

Subsequent years found me working as an assistant district attorney in Pittsburgh, then as a deputy United States attorney in the same town, then, in due course, as United States attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and, ultimately, as attorney general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

My formative experiences for the governorship were primarily as a prosecutor, which gave me a strong sense that policy must be fact driven. But there is no underestimating the importance of my brief career as a teacher, when I learned that facts and ideas are not enough. Something must be done about them, and, for the most part, that involves explaining them to an audience.

While my overall political philosophy can fairly be described as conservative, it is important to know that, at the core, I am in favor of what works for the people. Pragmatism tempered by an adherence to Constitutional and ethical ideals ultimately delivers the kind of governance that serves the common good.

Editor: What are the highlights of your proposed budget, and what is the status of the budget approval process?

Corbett: The core of my proposed budget can be summed up briefly: a total spending of $27.3 billion and no more and no new taxes. I ran on a pledge of no new taxes. This wasn't out of political expediency; it was because no matter how difficult the budget, once we pass a tax it is nigh well impossible to get it off the books. Alcoholic beverages still carry what is called The Johnstown Flood Tax, which was passed to help the City of Johnstown rebuild after a flood - in 1936. Since that time, Johnstown experienced the Flood of 1977 and rebuilt all over again. Our problem is not too few taxes - it's too much spending. We will never control the tax burden if we don't control spending, and we'll never control spending if we keep raising taxes. The cycle has to be interrupted. A recession isn't simply a good time to do it - it's a signal that we must.

The cuts are not popular. I don't like them myself, but without those cuts, the state's revenue shortfall will, in due course, jump from $4.2 billion to $8 billion. I have likened it to setting a broken leg. There are few ways to do it painlessly. The only thing worse is to fail to set it.

That said, the budget in Pennsylvania is a collaborative process. I have submitted a proposal with cuts in various places. The State House of Representatives has since amended the budget, restoring spending in some areas while cutting in others.

My hard-and-fast rule is that the budget must come in at no more than $27.3 billion total and have no new taxes. Those are the core principles.

Editor: Please discuss Pennsylvania's current economic environment. What are your thoughts on encouraging the public and private sectors to work together for economic improvement?

Corbett: Pennsylvania's economic environment is much like that of any northeastern-midwestern, post-industrial state. Manufacturing is making a steady comeback, but not nearly as quickly as people would like. Our unemployment rate is below the national average. Our largest growth sector right now is energy, specifically the Marcellus Shale gas industry, which has, according to calculations from Pennsylvania's Department of Revenue, contributed more than $1 billion in state revenues since it got underway four years ago.

Public-private sector cooperation remains a significant goal. We have found that bureaucracy and inaccessibility are the major obstacles to startup businesses, and those are the very obstacles we're trying to get out of the way. On a visit to one company, I was told that when they wanted to put up a new addition, rather than wrestle with the tangle of government paperwork and bureaucracy, they simply went to a bank and worked out a deal privately. That's all well and good, but what of a company for which state help will make the difference between success and failure? That won't do.

I have begun the process of reconfiguring the state's Department of Economic and Community Development to consolidate 126 business assistance programs into 56.

That's a start. I also want to create a streamlined loan fund that will centralize state lending and underwriting in a way that is simple and free of the horse-trading that characterized past grants, which were such politicized items that they came to be known among legislators and the public as WAMS - Walking Around Money. I don't want Pennsylvania's resources walking around. I want them directed at a destination called jobs.

Editor: Please discuss plans for infrastructure improvement, including the education and training of Pennsylvania's workforce.

Corbett: One of the most important improvements we have on the agenda is not about bricks-and-mortar but about children and opportunity. In some locations in Pennsylvania, disadvantaged children are locked into failing school systems that leave them ill prepared for life as citizens and employees in a workforce. My administration is pushing for a school choice bill under which state educational subsidy will follow the child, who can then apply it toward a school that meets his or her needs. At the same time, we believe this system will create a level of competition that will cause public schools to improve as they vie with private and charter schools for these students. Basic education in Pennsylvania remains critical, and for the state's poorest, a zip code should not be a sentence to a lesser life. I am convinced that school choice will mark the single most important opportunity for an improved life and a better workforce.

Editor: Please talk about state support for industries, such as energy, high-tech, gaming, tourism and agriculture. What existing areas are expected to grow, and what new industries are poised to take hold?

Corbett: From farm to fork, agriculture remains Pennsylvania's single, biggest industry, and my budget retains important programs to keep it productive and thriving. One of the ironies of the current economy is that the Marcellus industry has come to coexist with many smaller family farms, especially in the state's southwest. We have seen cases in which farmers who were barely breaking even found themselves back in business because of the lease fees and royalty payments for natural gas beneath their properties. Because a natural gas well, once drilled and hooked up, has a very minor footprint - less than the size of a tennis court - little cultivatable land is lost. It has proven to be a win-win for many rural communities where historically high unemployment rates are now among the state's lowest.

While Marcellus is a key industry, it is only one of our key growth industries. High-technology and biomedical industries are springing up around the state's two largest cities, with pharmaceuticals playing a major role outside Philadelphia. In Pittsburgh, the two largest universities, Carnegie Mellon (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh, have spawned small-tech firms as well as attracted regional offices and laboratories for two high-tech giants. On the CMU campus, Apple Computer has established a software engineering operation, and in the city's East End, inside an old Nabisco bakery plant, Google has set up a large presence.

We expect both energy and technology to play important roles in job and business growth in the state.

Editor: What are key developments in Pennsylvania's becoming energy self-sufficient?

Corbett: Between coal and natural gas, Pennsylvania accounts for a disproportionate share of the nation's energy production, and that proportion is likely to rise as the Marcellus gas play picks up velocity. Natural gas is a far cleaner-burning hydrocarbon than most, and the administration is already contemplating what it will take to see the state's motor fleet switch to natural gas as a fuel source. In the cities, many buses already run on that fuel. We have an interesting advantage in that the major highway linking east and west - the Pennsylvania Turnpike - includes a series of rest and fueling stops. Establishing natural gas depots along with conventional petroleum fuels at these stops would mark a big step in making cross-state travel in a natural gas vehicle plausible.

This, of course, is very preliminary, but it is one of a number of possibilities to which the administration is looking for answers on energy self-sufficiency. While Pennsylvania currently imports approximately 75 percent of its natural gas, the Commonwealth is expected to be a net exporter within the next 5-10 years due to the growth of the Marcellus Shale industry. The most significant opportunity for becoming fully energy self-sufficient is reducing our reliance on foreign oil imports used in transportation. Proper development of natural gas and encouraging the development and deployment of a natural gas transportation fueling infrastructure - both focal points of the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission - are critical to reaching this goal.

Editor: I understand the state has enjoyed some success in creating manufacturing jobs in the green energy industry. For example, Gamesa Corp. - a manufacturer of wind turbine generator blades - has made a significant investment in Pennsylvania. Please tell us about this and other green business developments.

Corbett: One of the signs of change in our energy generation can be seen on a drive between my home in Pittsburgh and the state capitol. On two ridges, rows of wind turbines roll slowly. We are thrilled and proud of the progress of Gamesa and other green companies: the goal is to make sure that green energy joins the ranks of our more traditional sources of energy. Pennsylvania is committed to a diverse energy portfolio and policy, such as our existing Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, which sets goals for electric utilities to purchase solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and other alternative and renewable energy resources. In addition, I am committed to improving the business climate of the Commonwealth so that we can retain and expand job opportunities across the state.

Editor: What do you anticipate will be the major legal and legislative developments that affect business?

Corbett: The major legislative development facing business at this moment is to amend the state's tort statutes to reform joint liability in lawsuits. Under current law, a party who is deemed 10 percent liable in a tort action can end up paying 100 percent of the penalty if the other party avoids payment. This system is both perverse and unjust, and it creates a tangle of legal and insurance dilemmas that impede business growth. Currently, a tort reform bill is before the general assembly. It has been passed on two other occasions but then was vetoed by the sitting governor. I have told legislators to pass it again, because they now have a governor who will sign it.