Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As Gov.-elect Tom Corbett follows the lead of N.J.'s Christie, expect quick reform, deep budget cuts

Surrounded by his family and Pennsylvania's Republican elite, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett looked into the election-night crowd in Pittsburgh and said, "Throughout the campaign, people asked me, 'What kind of role model do you have?' I reminded them: Just look across the Delaware River to New Jersey. Take a look at Gov. Christie."

CorbettRead more

Surrounded by his family and Pennsylvania's Republican elite, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett looked into the election-night crowd in Pittsburgh and said, "Throughout the campaign, people asked me, 'What kind of role model do you have?' I reminded them: Just look across the Delaware River to New Jersey. Take a look at Gov. Christie."

If Corbett truly is looking to Trenton, Pennsylvania had better strap itself in and prepare for a thrill ride. Christie has stampeded through the Capitol, preaching the gospel of less government.

Like Christie, Corbett has a prime opportunity to use Pennsylvania's looming budget deficit to shrink government by starving it.

Christie was able to move rapidly partly because he spent the time between his election and his inauguration on an exhaustive transition. Almost weekly, he announced a key cabinet appointment. By Jan. 22, 2009 - just three days after his inauguration - his team issued voluminous reports detailing changes in the way New Jersey would govern itself.

Corbett seems to be wasting no time, either. He announced his transition team Wednesday, and it included a list of well-known names in Pennsylvania politics, some associated with former Gov. Tom Ridge's administration.

And, Corbett said Wednesday, he plans to have a state government reform plan his first week in office. That, too, seems taken from the Christie playbook.

Once in office, Christie seemed to know exactly where the power switches were.

He issued executive orders to freeze rule-making for 90 days and vetoed minutes of quasigovernment authorities when he didn't like their spending policies, such as a $19 million construction payment on Burlington City High School.

When he didn't have the legal authority to change things, such as getting the state's largest teachers union to freeze wages and concede to other givebacks, Christie used his bully pulpit to draw public scorn.

He cut school and municipal aid, and to offset the blowback from a potential increase in property taxes, he came up with a "tool kit" to help towns and school districts cap spending. He cut every state department by as much as 9 percent, and put government workers on furlough.

Because Christie plugged that budget hole without raising taxes, he raised enough eyes around the country to catapult him from Jersey pol to national figure.

He ran through Trenton so fast it was hard for his opponents to keep up.

"To tell the story of what's happened in New Jersey over the last 10 months, you would not guess we had a legislature controlled by the other party," said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Democrats control both houses in the New Jersey Legislature, and although they've opposed Christie famously over a failed attempt to tax the state's richest citizens and on women's health issues, they have yet to override a Christie veto.

There have been consequences to the cuts, some of which are yet to be fully felt. Because the governor cut state education funding, some school districts have laid off aides and teachers and increased classroom sizes. Municipal-aid cuts led to police layoffs and worker furloughs.

Last month, arguing that New Jersey couldn't afford its share of the cost, Christie cut a $10 billion commuter tunnel to Manhattan. And he said it in a characteristically Christie way: "When you try to fit a size-10 foot into a size-7 shoe, it's never going to work."

Christie has used that quick tongue and the force of his personality to sell the rapid changes and win supporters. Referring to his confrontational style in May, he said: "You should really see me when I'm pissed."

Asked for the umpteenth time Nov. 5 if his 15-state political tour stumping for candidates, including Corbett, was a prelude to running for president in 2012, Christie said, "Short of suicide, I don't know what I have to do to convince you people that I'm not running." He has not, however, slammed the door on a 2016 national campaign.

Corbett, though, is governing a very different state and has his own style. Coming into the job in January, the Republican prosecutor-turned-governor will immediately have to tackle an estimated $4 billion deficit. And because he made a no-tax pledge during his campaign, he will have to do so primarily by slashing spending.

Like Christie on the campaign trail, Corbett gave few details over the last few months about where and what he would cut.

He has said he would cut wasteful spending, the state's Medical Assistance program, and state car fleets, as well as the discretionary accounts that Pennsylvania legislators use to fund projects in their home districts. He wants to sell off Pennsylvania's state-run liquor stores, for an estimated $2 billion, but that likely won't be a quick victory.

None of that, however, adds up to wiping a gaping $4 billion deficit off the books.

Gov. Rendell, for one, said last week that Pennsylvanians will have to get used to a radically different approach to governing than they experienced under his watch.

"You're going to see a government without any impediment that is going to essentially reduce or eliminate government spending in most areas and retrench," he said.

Still, Corbett may have an easier time finding partners in the legislature to ram through his agenda. This last election wave ushered the GOP into firm control of Pennsylvania's House of Representatives. Republicans already control the state Senate.

As a result, Corbett may not have to resort to the bully pulpit to sell his policies as Christie has.

Not that it's Corbett's style. Where Christie can be purposefully brash and extemporaneous - and relish it - Corbett is much more reserved.

On the campaign trail, Corbett's events were scripted and controlled. When he spoke, he often did so from notes.

"His style is different," said Charlie Kopp, a longtime Republican fund-raiser and lawyer who on Wednesday was named legal counsel to Corbett's transition team.

"They are both strong-minded and don't shy away from confrontation," Kopp said of the two Republicans, "but, in my view, Corbett will be more of an iron fist in a velvet glove. He speaks softly. He doesn't yell. He's not confronting."

Even so, Kopp said, the result in Pennsylvania will be very similar to New Jersey: leaner, meaner government.