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Corbett, others get new vehicles despite austerity

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett has a new ride. So does his first lady. And his lieutenant governor. And the lieutenant governor's wife.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett has a new ride. So does his first lady. And his lieutenant governor. And the lieutenant governor's wife.

The taxpayer tab: $186,000.

Even as his administration is proposing dramatic cuts in the state's next budget, Corbett, his wife, Susan, and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and his wife, Suzanne, will all get to ride around in brand-new sport utility vehicles.

The men got 2011 Chevrolet Suburbans, each at a cost of $53,000, according to state records. The women received 2011 Chevy Traverses, at a cost of about $40,000 each.

Corbett, who prior to this has been driven around in cars that Gov. Ed Rendell had used, said Monday that he did not ask for the vehicles. In an interview, the governor said the state police made the decision to purchase the cars after assessing how many miles were on the older cars and the safety of the passengers in them.

"I would note that the car that I was in had about 160,000 or 170,000 miles on it, so it was pretty beaten up," he said. "This is a security issue for them [state police], as to what they want to transport people in."

The new cars, first reported on by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, spiraled into a mini-controversy for Corbett on Monday, more so when it became known that the governor's new car went into use on March 30.

That happened to be the same day that Corbett told reporters he was driving around in a beater from the Rendell era.

Corbett made the comments during a March 30 news conference in which he touted his plan to auction off the broken-down tour bus used by Rendell as well as reduce the state's auto fleet.

At the time, Corbett said his current car was a hand-me-down. "The SUV you see me driving today is the same car that Gov. Rendell had," Corbett told reporters then. "And it's been in the shop at least three times since I've been governor."

(Of the cars that carried Rendell, a state-leased 2010 Cadillac and a 2008 Suburban are being kept as backups; three others his security detail used are being given up.)

State police spokesman Jack Lewis said Monday via e-mail that the 2011 Suburbans were delivered to the state police on March 15. The one for Cawley was picked up for use March 28; Corbett's was picked up two days later.

The Traverses weren't put on the road until mid-April, Lewis said.

Still, Corbett apparently didn't take his inaugural ride in the new car until 2:30 p.m. April 1, Lewis said. Cawley took his first ride about a week after that.

"I don't think he [Corbett] knew he was getting a new car until he actually got it," spokesman Kevin Harley explained Monday.

Harley said the governor remains committed to reducing the state's auto fleet - a vow made often in his fall campaign - and that with one exception, he has directed his executive staff to drive their own cars rather than use state cars. "The governor said he didn't think they needed them," Harley said.

He said the exception is the chief of staff, Bill Ward.

In these days of belt-tightening and penny-pinching, any perk for a governor comes loaded with potential for grabbing headlines. Last week, Gov. Christie landed in a media frenzy when he was photographed exiting from a state helicopter that had flown him to his son's baseball game.

Christie's office released a log of all the times he has used the helicopter; most were work-related. And he reimbursed the state for the cost of that chopper ride to his son's game, as well as the cost of a separate ride to another ball game of his son's.

Though Christie called the rides legal and appropriate, the attention "Coptergate" received illustrated just how closely governors are scrutinized as they make ever-deepening cuts in state budgets.

"This huge cost-cutting, the likes of which we have not seen in 40 years anyway, is driving the scrutiny," said political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna. "I don't fault [Corbett] for the type of vehicle or the need to be safe, but I think in this day and age, it has to be about shared sacrifice. Public officials cannot ask voters to accept cuts and reduction of services without themselves leading the way."

In his budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, Corbett has proposed axing more than half of the funding for state-supported universities. He also wants to reduce state aid to public schools by more than $1 billion.

In speech after speech, he has said he believes everyone must sacrifice as the state seeks to resolve an estimated $4 billion deficit next year.

"The sacrifice must be collective," Corbett said in his March 8 budget address, "as will be the ultimate rewards."