ENOLA, Pa. - Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, outlining his plan to lift Pennsylvania out of the recession, addressed the issue of jobs and the jobless Tuesday for the first time in a public forum since his controversial comments about unemployed people 11 days earlier.
Some in his audience of students at a Central Pennsylvania business college said those comments rang true.
Corbett, who is state attorney general, said that as governor he would work to foster a better business climate by reducing the state's corporate taxes and developing job-training programs tailored to employers' current needs.
"We need to align education with opportunity," he said, just as the Senate was voting in Washington to extend unemployment benefits.
Corbett, addressing a crowd of about 75 at Central Pennsylvania College near Harrisburg, said he did not oppose extending those benefits if the money could be redirected from the federal stimulus program or other existing funds. But, he said, he did not support the Democratic plan approved Tuesday that would mean going further into debt to pay for added weeks of unemployment compensation.
The bill that cleared the Senate would extend unemployment benefits for 170,000 of Pennsylvania's half-million unemployed. About 14.6 million people are unemployed nationwide, according to government statistics.
It was Corbett's comments about jobless people and benefits that generated heat earlier this month. At a campaign stop July 9 in Lancaster County, he said that several employers had told him that people were saying they wouldn't seek work until their unemployment-benefit checks ran out. "The jobs are there," he said in part, "but if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there."
His comments drew criticism from Democrats and labor leaders. Corbett later said he misspoke and knew that most unemployed people wanted to work.
In his speech Tuesday, he did not refer to the controversy. But a student in his audience did, saying during the question-and-answer session afterward that she shared his views.
Dara Smith, 30, of Sunbury, said she agreed "wholeheartedly" with Corbett on the subject of unemployment compensation. "People are not looking for jobs when they are receiving benefits," she said.
Smith, an Air Force veteran and single mother who said she receives $1,000 a month plus tuition under the GI Bill, said she went back to school in legal writing after being unable to find a job in her north-central Pennsylvania town.
She told Corbett that employers needed to be more flexible about single mothers' hours, particularly when it came to scheduling around child care. Corbett said he understood her predicament - and told her he might come back to her for ideas.
Later, in reply to a reporter's question, Corbett lashed out at his opponent, Democrat Dan Onorato, for keeping the controversy about Corbett's comments alive as part of what he called an ongoing negative campaign.
"You tell me how many days he's been pounding me," said Corbett, adding that he wanted to move forward. "This is a positive campaign."
As he was leaving the conference center at the 1,150-student college, Corbett suggested that the news media had blown his Lancaster County comments out of proportion.
"I repeated what people had told me, what some people told me," he said. "I never said workers were lazy."
Asked by a reporter what he had learned from the experience, Corbett quipped, "I learned not to share anecdotes with you."
Still, he had a number of the smartly dressed business students on his side.
"If you do something and you keep getting a treat, you're not going to want to go away from that," said Curtis Voelker, 19, student-government president at Central Penn, which boasts a 98 percent job-placement rate for graduates. "I think Corbett has good ideas to push people to excel when there are many that are content to get by with the bare minimum."