Republican Tom Corbett has been taking heat this week from Democrats and organized labor over what his foes see as a reversal of his pledge not to raise taxes if elected governor.
Richard W. Bloomingdale, president of the state AFL-CIO, said Friday that Corbett was employing "Clintonesque" language tricks to explain his way out of comments he made Monday that he'd consider higher payroll deductions for workers to cover unemployment benefits.
During a debate in Hershey, Corbett and his Democratic opponent, Dan Onorato, were asked how they'd repay the $3 billion that Pennsylvania has borrowed from the federal government to shore up its jobless fund during the recession.
Would they cut benefits for laid-off workers? asked moderator Ted Koppel, former host of ABC's Nightline. Would they raise payments from employers? Or employees' payments?
Corbett replied that he was loath to raise payments for businesses. But he said: "I would look at the payroll tax – increasing the payroll contributions. I would look at reducing the unemployment if necessary, if we get to that point."
Though Onorato said he, too, would consider higher worker deductions, if necessary - along with higher business taxes and lower benefits - his campaign later jumped on Corbett for apparently going back on his no-tax vow.
"He called it a tax - his own words," said Onorato's campaign spokesman, Brian Herman.
Said Bloomingdale: "Does his no-tax pledge mean that he's not going to tax corporations, but he's going to tax middle-class working families?"
The Corbett campaign insisted that Corbett's comments had been misrepresented.
Yes, he did say he'd consider higher payroll deductions. But that's not a tax, his aides said; it's a "contribution."
"The Pennsylvania law clearly states that unemployment compensation is a contribution from both the employee and the employer," said Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman.
But Patrick Beaty, deputy secretary of the state Department of Labor and Industry, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that rulings by both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts had interpreted the word contribution to mean a tax.
David Smith, a department spokesman, confirmed that comment Friday.
Pennsylvania provides up to 26 weeks of jobless benefits to workers who lose their jobs. During this recession, the federal government has extended those benefits. The unemployed currently are able to collect up to 99 weeks of benefits.
The unemployment compensation fund is financed by a quarterly tax paid by employers on the first $8,000 of workers' salaries.
Employee paycheck deductions amount to 0.08 percent of their earnings - 80 cents on every $1,000.