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Despite criticism, Corbett’s track record strong

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett addresses a news conference on restored education funding to the state budget Friday, June 29, 2012 in Harrisburg, Pa.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett addresses a news conference on restored education funding to the state budget Friday, June 29, 2012 in Harrisburg, Pa.

Bradley C Bower, Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Corbett's detractors pan his priorities as insensitive and even cruel, yet it's hard to ignore the Republican's overall strong track record during the six-month legislative session.

Aided largely by an improving economy and leverage provided by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Corbett managed not only to keep his no-new-taxes campaign pledge for a second consecutive year but to win legislative approval for most of his major initiatives.

Among them: a natural-gas drilling law that encourages new wells and limits taxation, hundreds of millions in business tax breaks, an overhaul of the state correctional system and a refinancing of the state unemployment compensation system's roughly $4 billion debt to the federal government.

Also approved were a $27.7 billion state budget that erased or softened many of the spending cuts Corbett had originally proposed, a special tax credit aimed at luring a jobs-producing petrochemical refinery to western Pennsylvania and a new performance evaluation system for teachers and principals.

Even some Democrats — 11 in the House and three in the Senate — voted for the budget, compared with none on Corbett's first budget a year ago.

This is not to say Corbett's year was headache-free.

He faced criticism from within the GOP for his perceived inability to articulate a strong policy message. His job-approval rating plummeted to 36 percent, his lowest yet as governor, amid protests over spending cuts for education and social services.

The campaign to privatize liquor and wine sales, which Corbett had endorsed as a candidate in 2010, was one of his biggest defeats. And he was unsuccessful in seeking changes that were likely to increase the number of charter schools in the state.

David Patti, president and chief executive officer of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, credited Corbett's success to his increased willingness to become personally involved in selling his legislation.

"There's nothing like success to give the confidence to try again," he said.

Democratic critics zeroed in on Corbett's decision to eliminate General Assistance, a Depression-era program that provides a $200-a-month cash benefit for about 70,000 disabled adults who are unable to work. Savings of $319 million are anticipated from that proposal and new minimum work requirements for about 30,000 recipients who are medically needy.

"The way you treat the weakest among you says a lot about the most powerful," Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, said Saturday.

Rep. Joe Markosek, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, had this advice for Pennsylvanians: "Don't get old, don't get sick, don't try to educate kids, don't be unlucky enough to be disabled, don't try to find a job, don't try to catch a bus and don't try to find a non-deficient bridge."

Also, although the budget keeps state spending for public schools flat in 2012-13, Democrats said it locked in nearly $900 million in cuts that were implemented a year ago by not restoring that money. Teacher unions largely blame those cuts for thousands of staff layoffs and program cutbacks.

Advocates for children said they were heartened by a $100 million appropriation to continue the "accountability" block grants many school districts use to provide full-day kindergarten. Corbett originally proposed eliminating the grants, but reconsidered after it became apparent that improving tax collections will likely produce hundreds of millions of dollars more than expected.

"We saw investments in children improve during budget talks for two reasons: higher-than-expected state revenues and the demonstrated commitment of the General Assembly and the governor to make investing in our kids a higher priority," said Joan Benso, president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the block grant money and an additional $50 million earmarked for financially distressed schools will help struggling districts.

"There is a school funding crisis in Pennsylvania," he said. "These appropriations won't solve it, but they are a step in the right direction."