Has Tom Corbett lost control of the budget debate? The bleak headlines on school budgets all over the region just won't quit, and some Republicans in the legislature are starting to distance themselves from the Governor's harshest cuts in the wake of a poll showing 78% of Pennsylvanians oppose the education cuts.
Mr. Corbett claims he doesn't care about the polls, but I doubt many of his Republican colleagues in the legislature who are up for reelection in 2 years share this sentiment.
If the Republicans want to keep their majority, they will need to win the fight over spending cuts in the court of public opinion. To do that, they will need to present a more realistic plan for how they expect school districts and local governments to absorb the cuts without harming services.
This is an area where Mr. Corbett could profitably take a cue from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
On the raw politics of it, Mr. Christie has been far more adept than Mr. Corbett at telling the story of why he is making these cuts. You can disagree with him, but at least people know what Christie is thinking. Mr. Corbett hasn't done nearly as much to lay the political groundwork for countering the bad news out of local governments and school districts.
I would argue that the municipal consolidation issue, which I wrote about in my last column, and the local government "tool kits" are a critical part of Mr. Christie's political strategy against local governments.
Like Mr. Corbett, Mr. Christie passed down state government deficits to local governments by cutting aid. But unlike Mr. Corbett, Mr. Christie is saying that the cuts are acceptable because there is so much waste and duplication of services across local governments.
I personally think he is overstating the case for savings, and his cuts are much more extreme than I would prefer, but in general this story is correct - local government can achieve savings by consolidating administrative functions and sharing services.
Tom Corbett is cutting aid to local governments and school districts, but what are they supposed to do?
When teachers start getting laid off, and schools start cancelling full-day Kindergarten and crime increases, the Democrats will rightfully be able to blame it on the majority Republicans.
Mr. Christie avoids the blame by pointing to vague savings that could be wrung out of local government reforms and worker concessions. To this end, he capped local property tax increases at 2% in order to hasten municipal consolidations.
My own view is that putting a hard cap on taxes is a crude way to make policy, and is really just an attempt to do an end-run around the tough political questions.
Nevertheless, Mr. Christie is probably correct that starving the beast by restricting the taxing powers of tiny municipal governments will force officials to make some tough decisions about municipal mergers that would not be politically possible in a better economy.
It also helps that Mr. Christie's efforts to consolidate municipalities have the support of many Democrats in the legislature. I think having the political cover of bipartisanship and the appearance of consensus in the legislature increases Christie's political advantage over local governments. Similarly in Pennsylvania, there would be plenty of Democratic votes available for an amendment to make the merger process more citizen-friendly.
If Tom Corbett and the Republicans want to keep their majority next cycle, they will need to come up with a better story about where they think the waste is in local budgets. They would be wise to follow Chris Christie's lead and steal his municipal consolidation talking points.
About this column: Jonathan Geeting, keeper of the Lehigh Valley Independent blog, joins us for occasional thoughts on local/regional government and political issues.