By John Finnerty
Democrats should be having a field day attacking the Corbett administration, if only anybody would listen. But for months, no one has paid any attention because all of the drama has been centered on Republican in-fighting over liquor privatization and transportation funding.
Transportation funding sailed through the Senate, where Republicans hold just a 27-23 edge. Liquor privatization passed the House with no discernible Democratic support. Many rural lawmakers in both parties are leery of the highway funding plan’s heavy dependence on what is essentially a tax increase of at least 25 cents per gallon of gas. And there are clear hints that there may be a lack of support in the Senate for the type of full-blown dismantling of the liquor monopoly described in the House legislation.
Then came the budget.
And suddenly education and Medicaid expansion landed back on the radar.
Education funding resonates.
Much of the conversation about what ought to be done in Harrisburg is abstract and ideological. But then people say that teachers have lost their jobs. Class sizes are bigger. And property taxes have gone up. That’s real. That’s bottom-line. That matters.
The budget discussion last week included a prolonged math fight with Democrats pointing to areas where the state had slashed education funding. Republicans countered that the amount of basic education funding has actually gone up. They argue that the bulk of the money that local school districts have seen disappear was money that arrived in the form of stimulus payments. Republicans insist that school districts were repeatedly warned that the state was not going to be able to keep funneling the same amount of money after the stimulus dollars were exhausted.
Democrats countered with charts identifying a handful of grant programs that were always paid by state dollars but have quietly disappeared during the Corbett administration. These programs paid for things like tutoring, for dual-enrollment to help kids earn college credits while enrolled in high school and to help poor-performing schools improve. If it’s a draw, then Democrats win because the argument takes place in the context of the Corbett administration’s three-year war on public education.
Medicaid funding resonates too.
Study after study came out this spring indicating that, based on job creation, economic impact and aid to rural hospitals, Medicaid expansion is needed. And, oh yes, it will provide better health care for more than half a million working poor Pennsylvanians.
In the face of all that momentum, Corbett had dug in his heels and insists Pennsylvania needs “flexibility” before the state will expand Medicaid. Last week, Corbett’s aides went so far as to blame “ideology” in Washington as an impediment to the governor’s efforts to find a way to expand Medicaid.
Meanwhile, outside the Capitol building, busloads of uninsured people waved picket signs, chanted and described how their health problems were forcing them to choose between food and medical bills.
All of this is good news for Democrats in Harrisburg. Because remember that Republican in-fighting? The governor is desperate to see liquor privatization and highway transportation plans done this month. The House Transportation committee held its first hearing on the highway spending plan last week. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said that the Senate could vote on a liquor plan as soon as this week. For those to pass, the governor and his allies just might need a little help from Democrats to get around the internal bickering in the GOP.
The Democrats will have an opportunity to address some of their priorities. That could mean more dollars for schools. And is it really such a stretch to see a midnight-hour push to expand Medicaid? There is a way for everyone to come out of June smelling like a rose. But honestly, won’t we be surprised if they do?
Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspapers Holding Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.