HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett has hit the road to sell an ambitious spring agenda, toting a message honed to win over popular opinion. In his rear-view mirror is a skeptical Legislature.
Audiences on Wednesday began hearing the sales pitch, a day after the Republican governor revealed the full scope of his plans to increase transportation funding, rein in pension costs and boost spending next year. Those blueprints are accompanied by his recently announced strategy to liberalize sales of beer, wine and liquor in Pennsylvania.
It helps that, for the first time in his three years of presenting budget plans, Corbett has floated one that does not advance stiff cuts to at least some area of state government aid. That allows him to play up his proposed new spending on public schools and social services, not to mention his third year of seeking business tax cuts.
"A lot of people talk to me about my political future," Corbett told a Wednesday breakfast meeting of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group of non-union construction business owners that endorsed Corbett in his 2010 campaign.
"You're taking on pensions. You're taking on transportation. You're taking on the sale of the (Liquor Control Board). By the way, how many of you would like to be able to buy your beer and wine in a grocery store?"
That last line brought applause before Corbett finished the thought moments later, saying that he's not worried about the effect of challenging pursuits on his election.
"I don't think in two-, four-, six-year cycles," Corbett told several hundred people in the suburban Harrisburg hotel ballroom. "I'm looking long distance."
His pitch was more or less this: An increase in wholesale fuel taxes is necessary to protect motorists on Pennsylvania's bridges and highways from catastrophe. Lawmakers must adopt his plan to counter rising pension costs or face tax increases. And does anyone like the Prohibition-era rules that limit where Pennsylvanians can buy beer, wine and liquor?
As he gears up for next year's re-election campaign, that message may help turn around his sagging poll numbers. To an extent, he's also running against the Legislature: "I'm asking them to do a lot, that's why they came to Harrisburg," he told reporters Wednesday.
To Democrats, he is the governor who balanced a multibillion-dollar budget deficit on the backs of public schools, universities and the poor while padding business owners' pockets with tax cuts and protecting the booming natural gas industry.
"When you look at how those policies have played out over two years, we are left wondering who, just who has benefited?" Sen. Lawrence Farnese, D-Philadelphia, said Wednesday.
Top Republicans have complained that they've carried Corbett's water for two years with little guidance from a governor whose office lacked a convincing public relations strategy and the personal relationships to win over skeptics.
On Tuesday, they gave Corbett credit for tackling tough issues like transportation and pensions. But they greeted many of his high-profile ideas with limp handshakes.
If Corbett doesn't get the Republican-controlled Legislature to go along with his plans, or at least pass something similar, it would be damaging to his re-election message, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.
"No matter how good this sounds on the road, the question of leadership will haunt the next campaign, especially when it's all under Republican control," Dinniman said.
Next week, the Senate Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on Corbett's plan to pump more money into roads, bridges and highways. On Feb. 19, the House and Senate Appropriations committees will kick off three weeks of budget hearings.
Counterproposals will surface and, in June, many expect negotiations to begin in earnest ahead of the July 1 start of the fiscal year, when lawmakers traditionally take a two-month break from the Capitol.
After two years of putting out fires, Corbett is more seasoned and can use his bully pulpit to sway public opinion and piece together coalitions of lawmakers to back his plans, said David Patti, a Corbett supporter who heads the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council.
"You're seeing more fully who is the real Tom Corbett," Patti said. "I think he will have a good June."