By Angela Couloumbis and Amy Worden
Setting the stage for a showdown with the state legislature, Gov. Corbett on Thursday signed the $29.1 billion spending plan it passed last week -- but only after striking more than $72 million from the legislature's own budget.
In announcing his decision outside his office in the Capitol, 10 days after the budget-passage deadline, Corbett said he made the difficult decision because the General Assembly had failed to act on what he believed was one of the biggest issues facing the state: the skyrocketing cost of public-employee pensions.
The governor stopped short of calling the legislature back to Harrisburg this summer to hold a special session on overhauling the pension system. But he signaled that there was a possibility he would do so.
"Pennsylvania's legislature is a full-time legislature," said Corbett. "The General Assembly left Harrisburg earlier this month with unfinished business. They need to come back and enact pension reform."
The governor vetoed $65 million in legislative operational spending and an additional $7.2 million in legislative-controlled special projects, or earmarks.
The GOP-controlled legislature could return to Harrisburg and, with a two-thirds vote, override the governor's vetoing of certain spending. That would put Corbett, a Republican facing a tough reelection battle in the fall, in a difficult position and further poison the tense relationship between lawmakers and the administration.
In a sharply worded statement, Republican Senate leaders were critical of the governor, saying he had not adequately explained the link between his specific vetoes and "our mutual goal of public-pension reform."
"He did not make that strategy clear," Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County said. "It's a strategy that I don't understand and don't see how it leads to success."
Pileggi said it had not been decided whether to return to Harrisburg to attempt to override the governor's veto, or whether legislators could or should take legal action against some of Corbett's vetoes.
Senate Republicans also knocked Corbett for what they said was his failure "to work effectively with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to address important fiscal issues impacting our state."
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R. Allegheny) said Thursday that the House would return as planned Aug. 4 to take up the Philadelphia cigarette tax and possibly the pension bill. He would not say whether the lower chamber would seek to override Corbett's veto.
The $29.1 billion budget the legislature sent Corbett last week contains no new levies or increase in taxes -- as the governor had asked.
But the House was unable to muster the votes on a bill backed by Corbett that would change the pension plans for all new state and public school employees.
The governor was also angered that the legislature refused to give up any of the $153 million it keeps in reserve while at the same time increasing its request for public funding.
"Pennsylvania doesn't have a reserve and the legislature does?" Corbett told reporters, alluding to the state's "rainy-day fund" that was depleted by his predecessor, Ed Rendell.
Corbett and administration officials pointed out that the legislature increased its $320 million budget 2 percent at a time when the state is facing a deficit of more than a billion dollars.
"We took a number of steps to fill that gap, and you had the legislature adding to its budget," Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said at a news briefing following the governor's event.
In striking the $65 million in legislative spending from the budget, Corbett would force lawmakers to begin drawing down on that reserve.
Even with the cut, Corbett said, the legislature will still have three months' worth of operating reserve.
It also was unclear whether the governor's action would affect the anticipated vote next month in the House to finalize a bill containing language for a cigarette tax to aid Philadelphia schools.
"I want to see those schools open on time," said Corbett. "All parties must step up. As I see it so far, the School District has done so. The city has done so. The state has done so."
Corbett said he could not say the same for the teachers' union. He said Philadelphia was only one of two school districts in the state in which teachers did not contribute toward their health care.
"We need to have the public-sector teachers' union in Philadelphia step up and make concessions," the governor said.
Throughout his news conference Thursday, Corbett took aim at public-employee unions, criticizing them for pushing legislators to vote against the pension overhaul.
But political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said that, Corbett's criticisms of unions aside, "the reality is, legislative leaders of the GOP can't get their own people to get pensions through."
Madonna said Corbett's throw-down-the-gauntlet move put the Republican governor in a better position than the legislature for the November election.
Corbett, who is running for a second term, has not been able to shake a 20-point deficit against his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf.
But, Madonna cautioned, "it's a game in progress, and he has the most to lose."
(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer