HARRISBURG - At a time when some Republicans in Washington are softening their no-tax pledges, the top Republican in Harrisburg is doubling down on his.
"I'm not going to increase taxes right now," Gov. Corbett said Thursday to a small group of reporters in his Capitol office. "We'd chase every business out of Pennsylvania."
In a year-end interview almost midway through his first term, Corbett touched on topics ranging from his administration's achievements and his political prospects to the state's fiscal predicament and the possibility of adding a high-speed toll lane to the Schuylkill Expressway to raise money needed for bridge and highway repair.
He also mused briefly on the steady scrutiny a governor faces, compared with his previous job as state attorney general - where, he joked, his few critics were people he'd "put in jail or sued."
On taxes, Corbett remained true to his 2010 campaign pledge, saying he would not impose new levies even as the state confronts dual crises in public-employee pension obligations and transportation funding - both with multi-billion-dollar price tags - not to mention the looming possibility of state impact if President Obama and Congress fail to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Corbett's no-new-taxes stance drew a swift rejoinder from Democrats. "It's completely unrealistic to think the problems could be solved without any revenue increase," said Bill Patton, spokesman for state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny). "Only two people think otherwise: Tom Corbett and Grover Norquist."
In recent weeks, several Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate have distanced themselves from the no-tax pledge, crafted by Americans for Tax Reform founder Norquist, that they signed years earlier. They say they still oppose raising tax rates and hope to increase revenue by capping deductions and closing loopholes.
Corbett, who signed the same pledge, said taxes are not the only way to finance big-ticket projects. He mentioned public-private partnerships for transportation, such as dedicated toll lanes on heavily traveled roads or bridges. He noted that Virginia and other states already have so-called HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes. Depending on the state, those high-speed lanes are open only to drivers with two or more passengers - or those who pay a toll.
He mentioned an idea that retiring State Rep. Richard Geist (R., Blair), chairman of the House transportation committee, has promoted for years without success. "Imagine putting . . . another lane on the Schuylkill Expressway, that would go right down the middle," the governor said. "Would you pay the toll to go down that?" Geist has suggested an elevated lane.
In the nearly hour-long interview in his office with its mahogany paneling, tapestry curtains, and portraits of governors past, Corbett touted his efforts to bolster the business climate and create jobs. And once again he defended his handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse investigation when he was attorney general. "Did it get done as fast as we'd like? It never gets done as fast as we'd like. This is not CSI, where they get things done in 24 or 48 hours."
Corbett has said he would likely agree to meet with investigators if Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, moves forward with her promised probe of the case. Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence for molesting 10 boys.
While he has not formally declared his candidacy, Corbett left little doubt he will run again in 2014. One Democrat, former state environmental secretary John Hanger, this week launched a run for governor, and others are expected to join the field. Corbett said of his tepid midterm poll numbers, "Polls go up and down."
"I feel very good about my prospects for reelection," he said.
He said cutting spending and reining in borrowing might not win him a popularity contest, like a father who "makes you eat your vegetables and go to bed by 11."
But regardless of whether voters give him a second term, Corbett said, he hopes to be remembered as a good steward of the taxpayers' money. "Would I like to leave as my legacy that I left this state in a better fiscal situation than I found it? Absolutely."
Asked if he liked being governor, Corbett said it was different from his old job.
"I jokingly say that as attorney general, 90 percent of the people like you, 10 percent don't," he said, "and they're probably the ones you either put in jail or sued."