Street Corner Soapbox: Worst Governor Ever

Categories:      News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 at 7:00 AM

Has Pennsylvania ever had a worse governor than Tom Corbett?

Consider this: during his first year in office, Corbett slashed the state’s education funding by nearly a billion dollars. 

Worse, the cuts were to grants and enrichment programs, hitting the neediest students hardest. The state’s 150 poorest school districts saw cuts of $581 for each student; the 150 richest districts, only $214.

Our schools are still reeling. The cutbacks forced the Erie School District to undergo redistricting. Enrichment programs vanished, teachers were let go. Erie’s best schools have plunged in the state rankings. As harsh as the cuts were to Erie, Philadelphia has suffered more. Its budget shortfalls caused a shortage of school nurses – and two schoolchildren have died in Philadelphia schools since, in part because no nurse was there to diagnose and treat them.

That same year Corbett took the ax to education, he increased funding to state prisons by $180 million. And each year of his administration, funding for prisons has increased. In the 2014-15 state budget, funding for Corrections for the first time in the state’s history topped $2 billion.

And even if you take Corbett’s ad claims at face value that the private job sector grew by 150,000 jobs during his administration’s tenure, that represents a growth rate of 2.8 percent – less than half the national average, and putting Pennsylvania 46th among the nation’s states for job growth. But those numbers conveniently leave out the 42,000 jobs cut from the public sector, which were directly related to Corbett’s policies. Pennsylvania’s actual job growth during Corbett’s three years was 1.7 percent.

Of course, not all suffered from Corbett’s policies. Shell Oil, for example, received a $1.7 billion tax break on a plant it built in-state. Frackers enjoyed a tax holiday during the first years of Corbett’s tenure, too. And when a tax came, it was in the guise of an “impact fee,” a limited, flat fee assessed to each well.  It’s a system that’s extremely generous to the extraction industry: It brings in 30 percent of the revenue that the state could have expected had it imposed the same kind of tax system Texas and Wyoming uses. 

And that fat Shell deal seems all the more ugly when you consider that the company donated $50,000 to Corbett’s campaign a few scant months before it was awarded its perks.

Which really isn’t all that surprising. Corbett was installed into the state’s top seat to support Big Energy. Corbett was relatively obscure, a former U.S. attorney and corporate lawyer for Waste Management, when he was embroiled in a close race for state attorney general in 2004 – until a $720,000 last-minute donation from an unknown campaign committee pushed him to a narrow win. Half that donation — $450,000 – was funneled through the campaign committee from a single donor: Aubrey McClendon, CEO and chair of Chesapeake Energy, now the most active gas driller in the state.

But, really, you think. The worst governor? Isn’t that an exaggeration?

There’s Thomas McKean, who essentially invented the American spoils system by booting all Federalists out of appointed office and replacing them with members of his own Democrat-Republican party after taking office in 1799. 

And true, Pennsylvania state politics was riddled by corruption in the 19th century. Party bosses and Robber Barons ran the state like a personal fiefdom. It was an age so corrupt that it caused one wry observer to remark that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had “done everything with the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.”

Or take John Hartranft, for example, who was installed into the governorship by the notoriously corrupt Simon Cameron. And Hartranft during his two terms duly supported the interests of the railroad and other state industries, even calling out federal troops to put down a bloody railroad strike in Pittsburgh in 1877.  But Hartranft also advocated for the recognition of labor unions and arbitration of their claims, supported voting rights for African Americans and kept a tight watch over the state budget.

And then there’s Joe Ritner, a single-term governor elected in 1835. A son of a weaver and a self-made man, Ritner clawed his way to a Pennsylvania Assembly seat, where he came to prominence as the leader of a paranoid populist movement obsessed with secret societies – like the Freemasons. Nominated by the newly formed Anti-Masonic party as their gubernatorial candidate, Ritner lost two bids for the governor’s seat before taking advantage of a split in the Democratic Party to win on his third try.

Ritner’s term was marked by pursuit of secret societies. His party passed laws banning “unlawful” oaths, forcing all societies to publicly disclose their memberships. His administration’s operatives raided state funds for rail and canal development to bribe and fund politicians, and gerrymandered the state’s legislative districts to favor their own party. The public quickly tired of Ritner’s witch hunt and ousted him in the next election – an election marred by Anti-Masonic political shenanigans that drew mobs of angry political supporters to Harrisburg, and Ritner had to call out the militia to restore order. 

Even then, Ritner successfully defended a bill establishing free public education from legislative attempts to repeal it, and under his stewardships, Pennsylvania schools grew from 750 to over 5,000 schools.

Sifting through history, it’s hard to find a governor who so baldly supported the interests of his financial backers at the cost to so many as Gov. Tom Corbett.

“Education has an extraordinarily high contemporaneous relationship with national income levels,” wrote Harvard economist Edward Glaser in a New York Times article. Glaser’s studies found that education produces societal economic wealth – and that lower levels of education leads to “poor economic performance” and “worse political outcomes” – trends that persist for decades after policy changes are enacted.

Investment into education really is an investment in the future. 

What makes Corbett truly the worst governor in Pennsylvania history is that he savagely attacked the economic well-being of the state for generations to come to give a small economic sector great financial advantage. 

He told us these subsidies and tax breaks for drilling interests would bring jobs and economic renewal to the state. That has not come to pass. The gas industry has created far fewer jobs than promised by the rosy projections of the Marcellus shale promoters, and the fracking boom has apparently provided little, if any, economic benefit to the state.

Tom Corbett. Worst governor ever.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

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