HARRISBURG — The 2014 governor’s race may prove to be a battle over school funding and gas industry interests, as far as campaign finances are concerned.

Donors affiliated with the gas drilling industry gave more than half a million dollars to Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election bid during a campaign finance reporting cycle that ended Sept. 15.

That’s roughly double what the industry gave Corbett over the comparable period when he ran for governor four years ago.

The Corbett campaign raised $8.1 million in the last reporting period, according to records filed by the campaign with the state.

Half came from the Republican Governors Association, a national group led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Of the rest, about $1 of every $8 came from the gas industry.

A Corbett campaign spokesman said the governor needs all the money he can get to keep pace with spending by teacher unions and other labor groups on behalf of his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf.

“We appreciate the support we have received from individuals and organizations who believe in Gov. Corbett’s vision of lower taxes and more jobs and want to see our commonwealth continue to grow stronger,” said campaign spokesman Billy Pitman.

Wolf reported $9.6 million in campaign donations during the period. The businessman from York collected $2.74 million from unions, including $1 million from labor groups representing government employees.

In addition, pro-union PACs have spent their own money attacking Corbett.

A political committee called PA Families First, funded by teachers unions, spent $2.6 million between June and September, including $1.9 million on advertising that opposed Corbett.

Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said the unions and gas industry represent “powerful special interests.”

“You’d have to be naive to expect that either one would sit on the sidelines,” he said.

The gas industry has long opposed any attempt to create an extraction tax on drilling activities, which has become a sticking point in the governor’s race.

“New energy taxes will, without question, make Pennsylvania a less competitive state to invest and work,” said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group. “Our leaders should focus on efforts that will help foster even more job growth across the region, rather than new energy taxes.”

Corbett has opposed the idea of an extraction tax. Borick calls the governor a “steadfast ally of the Marcellus shale drilling industry.”

“He’s paid a bit of a political cost for that,” Borick added, noting that Corbett’s opposition to an extraction tax “bucked public opinion in a big way.”

Wolf has built a campaign around the juxtaposition of school funding cuts and the state’s failure to tap drillers for more tax dollars. He proposes using a severance tax to replace some of the $1 billion in state funding for schools that was cut when Corbett took office.

The strategy seems to resonate with voters, as Wolf has led Corbett in most polls by 17 to 20 points.

John Hanger, former secretary of environmental protection, said Corbett’s close association with the industry has undermined public faith in the state’s ability to regulate drillers.

“They allow influence to reach right into the governor’s office,” said Hanger, a Corbett critic and Wolf ally.

But Windle said Corbett’s administration has balanced effective regulation with fostering the state’s growing status as a gas powerhouse.

“Today the Marcellus Shale alone is producing 16 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day, representing more than 20 percent of the nation’s natural gas demand,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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