Conservative activists from across Penn's Woods gathered recently for the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference. From the podium and through the hallways a common theme emerged. There is a palpable sense of disappointment — and growing anger — over the slow pace of Governor Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled General Assembly toward enactment of the conservative agenda.
Activists are quick to credit the Governor and his legislative allies for last year's state budget which held the line on both spending and taxes. Credit is also given for the fact this year's proposed budget — and likely final budget — will follow suit. But those accomplishments are the only reason why conservative anger has not turned into outright hostility and rebellion.
Fueling disillusionment among the party's base is the progress being made in other states. Conservatives have watched with envy as Indiana enacted a Right to Work law. Wisconsin — liberal Wisconsin — passed sweeping reforms that threw off the yoke of labor union repression that had bloated that state's budget for decades. From Chris Christie's war against the education establishment in New Jersey to policy victories in Virginia, Florida, Ohio and other states conservatives nationwide are enacting their agenda.
Here in Pennsylvania the conservative agenda is dead in the water. During the early months of the Corbett Administration we were told the budget came first, that other issues would be addressed after the budget was passed. The budget was passed nine months ago and the record of accomplishment since then is, well, dismal.
School choice was to be the crown jewel in this session's legislative crown. But even a watered down version of school choice failed to pass the General Assembly. Ditto privatization of the state's liquor stores. Efforts to protect the unborn via the Women's Right to Know Act floundered and was pulled from the legislative agenda. Right to Work is mentioned in hushed tones and even a modest update to the state's Prevailing Wage law remains bottled up in a House committee.
Pointing to policy victories in other states, conservatives are demanding to know why, with a Republican in the Governor's Office and historic Republican majorities in the General Assembly more progress is not being made. Matthew Brouillette, President of the Commonwealth Foundation, has the answer. He correctly points out that the Republican/Democrat model does not apply in Pennsylvania. Rather the legislature is divided between the union party and the taxpayer party.
And the union party is winning. Last summer a number of contracts with state labor unions were up for renewal. Rather than take a stand to bring labor costs under control, the Corbett Administration simply caved into union demands. It bought labor peace, but that tranquility will come at a considerable price to taxpayers. In the state Senate, leadership has opposed liquor store privatization and other conservative initiatives. Simply put, the upper chamber has become a conservative policy graveyard. In the House, labor leaders recently lauded House Labor Committee Chairman Ron Miller (R-York) as "our man in Harrisburg." Is it any wonder no legislation aimed at curbing the excesses of organized labor are stuck in his committee?
Simply put while Republicans are the governing majority in Harrisburg conservatives and taxpayers remain in the minority. That is why the upcoming primary election is so important. It is no longer good enough to simply return Republicans to office because the alternative is worse. Primary elections are held for a reason. Primaries are where the battle for the heart and soul of the party is fought. Incumbent Republicans who take money from labor unions are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
With Pennsylvania's primary election now just weeks away voters should take the time to find out whether their elected representative stands with the unions or with the taxpayers. If only a few incumbents lose because they sided with the special interests rather than the public interest, then the culture of state government will begin to change. And change must come soon. Because if it does not, that simmering conservative anger will boil over when the spotlight returns to state government in 2014.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)