In July, Governor Tom Corbett called penalties on Pennsylvania State University part of a “corrective process” after a sex-abuse scandal. Last week, he sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association for levying them.
The governor needs good will, and the suit may provide it. Corbett, a 63-year-old Republican, faces re-election in 2014 with approval ratings worse than those of any first-term Pennsylvania governor in 24 years.
He’s made unpopular decisions in order to balance budgets in a sluggish state economy, and the new attorney general won a resounding victory after promising to review the nearly three-year child-molestation investigation of a Penn State assistant football coach that Corbett began.
“I don’t see him having a good year,” said Ryan Shafik, founder of Rockwood Strategies, a Harrisburg-based consultancy that works with Republican candidates. “He’s dug himself in a political hole.”
Polls underscore Corbett’s challenge.
“He has the lowest job performance on average of any governor in modern history” in the state, said Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. Corbett is “in a more precarious position for re-election than any governor” in more than two decades, he said.
The suit, which the university itself didn't join, is no ploy, said Kevin Harley, a Corbett spokesman.
“This lawsuit is not about politics or elections,” he said. “It’s about fighting for the people of Pennsylvania.”
Corbett, a former attorney general who grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, applies his background as a county and federal prosecutor to governing. He measures his words, saying nothing about the Penn State scandal until four days after Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing children.
“He’s more hands-off,” Shafik said. “He doesn’t like dealing with the legislature. He doesn’t roll up his sleeves and do the work other governors have done to get legislation done.”
Corbett has overseen an economy that is lagging the national one, as gauged by a Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia index that tracks economic activity through jobs and wage data. The state has underperformed the national measure by 1.41 percentage points since Corbett took office.
The governor has said natural-gas drilling and related industries will propel the economy. Since 2008, more than 5,500 wells have been drilled into the Marcellus shale, a deposit that underlies two-thirds of the state.
Pennsylvania will add as many as 575,000 jobs by the end of 2020, with more than half the gains tied to the development of natural gas, according to Wells Fargo Securities economists.
Still, when Corbett took office in January 2011, succeeding term-limited Democrat Ed Rendell, he faced headwinds at once, confronting a $4 billion deficit in a $27 billion budget. That plan cut primary-education aid about 8.6 percent and reduced spending on the state’s 14 universities about 18 percent.
His second budget, for the year that ends June 30, cut welfare services, such as by eliminating a cash assistance program for the poor and disabled. It also lowered business taxes.
Meanwhile, many cities and their residents are suffering from the 18-month recession that ended in 2009.
The capital, Harrisburg, is in state receivership and defaulted on general-obligation debt twice last year. Scranton paid its workers minimum wage in July after Mayor Christopher Doherty said the city didn’t have cash for the entire payroll.
While Corbett has said he will address the state’s $41 billion in unfunded pension liabilities -- a factor in the state’s credit downgrade from Moody’s Investors Service in July -- he hasn’t touched on the local woes. Municipal governments face $8.5 billion in pension liabilities, according to Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Retirement Commission.
Amid fiscal the challenges, Corbett waded into national politics, joining other Republican governors in requiring voters to show photo identification, a measure critics say was meant to suppress Democratic votes. A judge barred implementation in the November election, and Pennsylvania voters continued their streak since 1992 of selecting the Democratic presidential candidate, giving Barack Obama 52 percent of the vote.
Such decisions have taken a toll.
Kathleen Kane, as Democratic candidate for attorney general, promised to review how the office handled the Sandusky investigation, which began in early 2009 when Corbett held her post. In November, she won 3.1 million votes -- the most of any candidate on the state ballot.
Sandusky molested 10 boys over the course of 15 years at places including Penn State facilities. The 68-year-old, an assistant coach for 31 years under Paterno, was sentenced in October to a minimum of three decades in prison.
The Indianapolis-based NCAA, the governing body for college sports, fined the university $60 million for failing to prevent the abuse. It also stripped Penn State of 112 football wins from 1998 through 2011 and barred the Nittany Lions from bowl games for four years, matching the longest post-season ban in NCAA history.
When the NCAA punished Penn State, Corbett said he was “grateful” it didn’t shut down the football program. The governor learned more about the situation over the intervening months, said Harley, the spokesman.
“It’s not a flip flop,” he said. “That’s getting evidence.”
By suing the NCAA, Corbett could improve his relationship with Penn State alumni, a massive voting bloc. Almost half of the 560,658 graduates tracked by the alumni association live in five cities, three in Pennsylvania.
Sixty-two percent of state voters thought the sanctions were too strict and about half are fans of Penn State football, according to results released Jan. 7 from Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Lions’ home games averaged 96,730 people last year, according to the athletic department.
Any reduction of the NCAA penalties would boost Corbett, said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. “He’d be looked at in some ways as a hero.”
So far, voters like the effort, with 52 percent surveyed supporting the lawsuit, according to the Public Policy Polling survey. Only 38 percent approve of his job performance.
Andrew Schaum of East Bradford Township, a 1984 graduate who is president of a youth development non-profit, said he was disappointed Corbett didn’t act sooner. Still, it’s “refreshing” the governor suing the NCAA now, he said.
“This increases my attraction to him as a candidate,” Schaum said.