PoliticsPA: Onorato touts severance tax, calls Corbett gas industry shill

By Alex Roarty

HARRISBURG — This is one tax Dan Onorato doesn’t mind embracing.

The Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wednesday touted his support of a natural gas severance tax, which he says is necessary to protect the environment and local towns from a deluge of drilling that has swept across the state’s northern and western regions in recent years.

And he drew a sharp contrast between his position and that of his GOP opponent Tom Corbett, who, like with all taxes, opposes a tax on natural gas drilling. Onorato characterized Corbett’s stance against the levy as evidence he is little more than shill for the gas and oil industry instead of representing the state’s citizens. Corbett’s campaign shot back that Onorato’s position shows he, like Governor Ed Rendell, supports more bureaucracy and believes the state can “tax and spend its way to prosperity.”

Supporting the tax could give Onorato a wedge issue against Corbett, particularly in the all-important southeast where support of environmental protection is generally stronger. Voters are far more inclined to support taxes on big industries, particularly if the Democrat can tout the programs that the levy will fund. But it also gives Corbett an opportunity to name a specific tax supported by Onorato, who has gone to great lengths trying to portray himself as a fiscal conservative averse to all taxes.

“Tom Corbett thinks these drillers should be allowed to police themselves; I do not,” Onorato said during an afternoon Capitol press conference. “Tom Corbett thinks taxpayers should foot the bill to clean up and protect the environment. I think the drillers should pay for it.

“I’m running for governor to represent Pennsylvania’s taxpayers,” he said. “Tom Corbett is just representing the gas drillers.”

Drilling for natural gas is a major issue for the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas region, which encompasses nearly every part of the state outside the southeast. The natural resource is seen as an boon to a region that has struggled economically for decades, but environmentalists and others have grown increasingly concerned about its possible negative impact on surrounding areas. The Democratic nominee said voters he talked to say, outside of the economy, drilling is the state’s most important issue.

Onorato’s plan calls for a “competitive” tax rate “comparable” with what other states have levied, but he declined to name an exact rate despite repeated prodding from reporters. The levy needs to meet the dual goals of bringing jobs to Pennsylvania but “not at the expense” of the environment or local infrastructure, he said.

The tax would raise money for environmental programs, protection and local infrastructure, not the state’s $28 billion General Fund.

“It’s a fee on the industry to be brought back into the problems the industry creates,” he said.

Onorato encouraged drawing a contrast between his position and Corbett’s, saying it’s symbolic of a race that features one candidate who wants to represent the state’s citizens and one who wants to represent big business. The attorney general, he said, sees only one side of the issue – the gas industry’s.

“He’s basically saying, ‘You do it industry. I trust you,’” Onorato said.

Corbett, as part of his no-tax pledge, does not support the new tax. His spokesman, Kevin Harley, blasted Onorato for supporting the tax, saying it’s the kind of stance taken by Governor Rendell.

“The biggest difference between Onorato, Rendell and Corbett,” said the spokesman. “They think the solution to all our problems are more taxes and more bureaucrats.

“Corbett believes that by growing this industry, we could produce as much as 600,000 jobs, which will increase the tax base, which will increase the revenue to the state,” Harley said.

The extra revenue generated could fund many of the environmental and infrastructure programs suggested by Onorato, he added, although Corbett hasn’t determined whether he’ll support Growing Greener III.

The issue of a severance tax could be moot by the time either candidate takes office. Lawmakers, per a budget agreement struck in July, have agreed to approve a shale tax by Oct. 1.

But Onorato questions whether that will happen.

“I am skeptical the severance tax will pass by the fall,” he said. “Since the legislature has made it clear repeatedly that they won’t do what needs to be done, preferring politics over policy even at the environment’s expense.”

The Democrat wouldn’t say whether legislators should approve a tax despite the fact much of it would be directed to the General Fund, a significant from his proposed levy. Lawmakers need to do what they need to do, he said.

Harley was unequivocal, saying the legislature should not levy the new tax.

Correction: The original version of this story said Onorato has shifted his position on the severance tax, citing a Post-Gazette article from January. The article stated clearly that Onorato, while having reservations over the tax, was still undecided. PoliticsPA regrets the error.

PoliticsPA: Onorato believes he’s down 5 or 6 points

By Alex Roarty

HARRISBURG — Despite facing a growing mountain of polls showing him down 10 points or more, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato says he thinks he’s still within single-digits, and well-within striking distance, of defeating Republican opponent Tom Corbett.

“It’s close,” he said during a press conference in the Capitol to promote his plan to levy a severance tax on the natural gas industry. “It’s definitely within single-digits.”

He said later he believes the margin is as close as five or six points.

Recent polling data, however, paint a more pessimistic picture for the Allegheny County chief executive. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday showed him down 15 points, 49 percent to 34 percent, and a Rasmussen survey unveiled Thursday put the margin at 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent.

A Franklin & Marshall College poll released last week reported Corbett was up 11 points, 38 percent to 27 percent.

Onorato’s problem stem mainly from the gaping enthusiasm gap facing Democrats this year. Polls that sample registered voters, instead of likely voters, show him far closer to Corbett. The F&M poll, for instance, showed the Republican attorney general leading by only 1 point in a survey of registered voters, 10 points fewer than a sample of likely voters.

But Onorato repeatedly said Wednesday that he expects to be the state’s next governor. Voters will have a chance by Nov. 2 to compare both men, and the Democrat said most of them will decide on him.

“I am excited about where we are at nine weeks out,” he said.

UPDATED: Corbett’s first ad mocks no-tax-pledge doubters (VIDEO)

By Alex Roarty

Update, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m.:

Corbett’s first ad is on air statewide on broadcast stations right now appears in dispute,

At a press conference Wednesday, Onorato was asked how he would respond to Corbett’s statewide TV campaign. The candidate quickly shot back that that the spot isn’t on air in the Philadelphia or Harrisburg media markets while dismissing concerns Corbett could stretch his lead while being the only gubernatorial candidate to have TV ads.

“We will be very well-known by November 2,” Onorato said.

Corbett’s spokesman Kevin Harley said the spot is playing statewide on the Fox News Channel, but wasn’t clear if it was airing on broadcast stations across Pennsylvania.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett is on the air with the first ad of the race between himself and Democrat Dan Onorato, a 30-second spot that mocks opponents who doubt he can keep his pledge not to raise any taxes in office while reminding voters of his office’s “Bonusgate” investigation.

The ad will run statewide on broadcast and cable, according to Corbett Campaign Manager Brian Nutt, who wouldn’t disclose when it will begin running.

“When I announced my pledge that as governor I would oppose all new tax increases, the response from the politicians was quite predictable,” Corbett says as he looks into the camera against a white background.

The ad segues to criticism from Governor Ed Rendell, and Corbett, who narrated the entire ad, reads a quote from the governor when he said the attorney general “needed to have his head examined” over the pledge.

The ad then pivots to criticism from Onorato, who called it a “gimmick.”

Putting Rendell and Onorato back-to-back is no accident. The Corbett campaign has dedicated itself to running as much against Rendell, whose poll numbers have sagged badly this year, as Onorato, whom the Republican’s campaign says would continue the incumbent’s tax-and-spend policies.

What the ad doesn’t mention is that Corbett’s no-tax pledge has also been derided by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), who has said he doesn’t see any way to balance next year’s budget, with a projected $4 billion shortfall, without raising taxes.

The attorney general compares those who doubt his no-tax pledge to those who doubted he wouldn’t investigate corruption in the Capitol, implicitly reminding voters of his office’s “Bonusgate” investigation, which has indicted 25 people part of or connected to the state House. The investigation led to the conviction of former House leader Mike Veon earlier this year, and two former speakers of the House, Democrat Bill DeWeese and Republican John Perzel, also await trial.

“The politicians were just as skeptical when I promised to fight corruption in Pennsylvania,” Corbett says. “Boy, were they wrong.”

He adds, “So if any of them truly believe we can’t stop Harrisburg’s reckless spending and high taxes, just watch me.”

A Franklin & Marshall poll released last week reported Corbett has an 11-point lead over Onorato among likely voters.

Update: 11:45 a.m.,

Brian Herman, Onorato spokesman, said the ad contains the same “empty promises” that Corbett has made on the campaign trail.

“Tom Corbett can make all the promises he wants in a TV ad, but his record speaks for itself,” the spokesman said. “He has requested more tax dollars for his office every year since being elected Attorney General, refuses to cut his current office budget by just two percent and the one time he voted on a budget he chose to raise taxes rather than cut spending.  He contradicts himself at every turn, suggesting that he doesn’t even understand his own economic policies; but, the one area where he is consistent is his support for big business over average Pennsylvanians.

He added: “Our state faces major challenges, and Dan Onorato is the only candidate with proven experience turning around an economy, controlling spending and balancing a budget without raising property taxes. Tom Corbett named his ad “Predictable” – an appropriate description for thirty seconds of the same empty promises he lacks the experience to fulfill.”

PoliticsPA: For Corbett on Onorato, it’s all about taxes, taxes, taxes

By Alex Roarty

PALMYRA — Boiled to its bones, Tom Corbett’s message is simple: I’m not going to tax you if elected governor.

The other guy, Dan Onorato? He, like his “mentor” Ed Rendell, never met a tax he didn’t like.

It was the central theme of remarks the GOP gubernatorial nominee delivered to employees at a food-processing plant here in Lebanon County Friday morning shortly after taking a tour. The local business event was one of many Corbett, who’s run a relatively low-profile campaign to date, has taken across the state as he emphasizes a pro-business message.

“In this campaign he’s calling for even more taxes and spending,” the GOP attorney general said. “He shares the same tax-and-spend philosophy as Governor Rendell.”

Corbett has signed the Americans for Tax reform no-tax pledge, a promise not to raise any taxes if elected. On Tuesday, he promised the audience that he would cut taxes, although stressing later to reporters that any tax cuts would come after the state dealt with a looming multi-billion deficit.

Dan Onorato has repeatedly stressed he doesn’t plan to raise any taxes outside of one that will likely become law before the next governor takes office. His campaign shot back that Corbett is distorting not only the Democratic nominee’s record but his own, which Onorato contends shows he’s proven he doesn’t know how to balance a budget.

“(Onorato) has made it very clear he’s not considering raising the income and sales tax,”said his spokesman, Brian Herman “The highest priority needs to be finding efficiencies and looking where to cut.”

On a conference call earlier this week, the Allegheny County executive called signing a no-tax pledge “gimmicky” but nonetheless vowed he wouldn’t raise the sales or income tax.

Herman, echoing a theme the Democrat’s campaign has pushed throughout, said Corbett has almost no experience balancing a budget, and what little experience he has proves he won’t do it well.

“Tom Corbett has demonstrated that he can’t handle a budget,” said the spokesman. “He’s asked for more more money every single year as attorney general. The one time he had to vote on a budget he had to raise taxes.”

The Onorato campaign earlier this week cited a vote Corbett took in 1988 as a township supervisor to raise property taxes by 20 percent.

Asked directly by a reporter what taxes Onorato wants to raise, Corbett cited his support of a new levy on natural gas extraction in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. But that tax, per a budget agreement among legislative leaders in July, will likely reach Governor Rendell’s desk before he leaves office.

The attorney general struggled to name another tax Onorato supports.

“I have to go look at my notes,” he said. “I don’t have my notes here in front of me.”

But the candidate said the Onorato-supported severance tax would be the “worst thing you can do” for the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry. His campaign has also repeatedly cited an array of taxes raised by Onorato as chief executive in Allegheny County as evidence he would do the same in Pennsylvania.

Corbett leads Onorato by 11 points, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll released Thursday, based mostly on the strength of an enthusiasm gap among voters that strongly favors Republicans.

PoliticsPA: F&M poll highlights enthusiasm gap for Democrats

By Alex Roarty

A new poll released Thursday from Franklin & Marshall College, which reported GOP statewide candidates Tom Corbett and Pat Toomey each possessed a roughly 10-point lead, illustrates the enthusiasm gap plaguing Democrats this year both in Pennsylvania and across the country.

It’s why Toomey, Corbett and a host of GOP congressional candidates appeared poised for success despite running in a state that has 1 million more registered Democrats and has eviscerated most Republican candidates the last two election cycles.

Only 37 percent of Democrats are likely to vote, the poll reports, compared to 45 percent of Republicans. More strikingly, half of those who voted for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 are likely to vote, it said. That number drops 15 points, to 35 percent, for those who supported President Obama.

The enthusiasm gap’s effect can be seen clearly in the difference between polls on the statewide races that surveyed registered voters with likely voters. GOP gubernatorial nominee Corbett, for instance, leads Democratic opponent Dan Onorato by only 1 point, 29 percent to 28 percent, when all registered voters are considered. But his lead swells by 10 points, 38 percent to 27 percent, when likely voters are considered.

The poll shows the same effect in the Senate race. U.S. Senate nominee Toomey leads Democratic opponent Joe Sestak by 3 points, 31 percent to 28 percent, when the polls surveys registered adults. With likely voters, Toomey’s lead grows by 6 points, 40 percent to 31 percent.

On the generic ballot, Republicans lead Democrats 41 percent to 35 percent among likely voters.

The poll also underscores the status of both Corbett and Toomey as favorites in their respective races. Toomey leads Sestak by 5.5 points in the pollster.com poll average; Corbett leads Onorato by more than 9 points in the same poll average.

UPDATED: Onorato says Corbett has ‘flip-flopped’ on no-tax pledge

By Alex Roarty

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato on Wednesday blasted GOP opponent Tom Corbett for saying he would consider increasing fees if he becomes governor, a position the Democrat said contradicts with the Republican’s no-tax pledge.

Corbett’s campaign told Capitolwire.com Tuesday that raising fees, a proposal lawmakers are considering to help the state deal with a billion-dollar transportation-funding shortfall, would not violate the high-profile no-tax pledge from Americans for Tax Reform signed by the candidate earlier this year. But in an interview with KDKA in March, Corbett explicitly said fees were included in his pledge not to raise any taxes.

Onorato called that a “flip-flop.”

“When you make a no-tax pledge a key part of your campaign, and then you start changing the parameters of what it covers, you have no credibility,” he said.

The Allegheny County Chief Executive has tried to criticize Corbett’s tax stance this week — on Tuesday he dug up a 22-year-old vote from the Republican in which he voted to raise property taxes in his local municipality by 20 percent.

Updated, 3:45 p.m.:

A spokesman for Corbett’s campaign said he hadn’t seen Corbett’s interview with KDKA’s Jon Delano and emphasized that the no-tax pledge does not include fee increases.

“I don’t know what he told Jon Delano about the pledge in March,”  said spokesman Kevin Harley. “He signed a no-new-tax pledge that doesn’t include” fee increases.

Harley pivoted from questions about Corbett’s comments in March to suggest the real story was Onorato’s refusal to sign the tax pledge.

“Tom Corbett has signed a no new-tax pledge. Dan Onorato refuses to sign a no-new-tax pledge,” Harley said. “And the reason for that is plan and simple: Dan Onorato is a career politician, and he’s done nothing but raise taxes and fees on the hard-working people of Allegheny County for the last 18 years.”

Onorato, during Wednesday’s conference call, vowed that he wouldn’t raise the state’s income or sales tax as governor, saying the state needs to bridge looming deficits by finding efficiencies in government first. But he declined to sign a pledge stating as much, calling such a move “gimmicky.”

Parameters for the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge can found here. Patrick Gleason, the group’s director of state affairs, told PoliticsPA in an interview that the fees are allowed as long as they’re used for a specific purpose — not put into the state’s General Fund.

The increases Corbett said he was amendable to, such as raising drivers’ licenses and car registration fees, would be funneled into a transportation-funding account separate from the General Fund. The account funds maintenance and construction of roads and bridges and local mass-transit systems, such as SEPTA, statewide.

“As long as it’s not being diverted from the services the fess are currently funding, and it doesn’t go into the General Fund, the pledge isn’t being violated,” Gleason said.

Corbett, as outlined in his transportation-funding policy paper, also indicates he would consider fees for high-occupancy tolls and vehicle-miles traveled, which also would go into the transportation account.

PoliticsPA: Onorato cites Corbett’s 22-year-old vote as no-tax debate rages in Capitol

By Alex Roarty

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato’s campaign is digging up a nearly 22-year-old vote from Republican opponent Tom Corbett, when he was a local township commissioner, to prove he will raise taxes as governor despite pledging not to do so.

The GOP candidate’s campaign is calling it a “desperate tactic by a desperate campaign” while pointing out that Onorato has raised an array of taxes and fees as Allegheny County executive. But the Democrat maintains the vote is relevant because it’s the only time Corbett has had to vote for a tax increase.

In 1988, Corbett as a Shaler Township commissioner voted to raise proper taxes in the municipality by 20 percent, a vote that was approved 4-3. The Onorato campaign said it one of the largest tax hikes for any municipality in Allegheny County that year.

The vote offers a moment of contrast for Onorato, who has consistently touted the fact he never raised property taxes as Allegheny County’s chief executive. The campaign also argued it shows Corbett’s high-profile pledge not to raise any taxes as governor, despite looming billion-dollar deficits, is unrealistic and indicative of a public official without any experience running government.

“It’s easy for Tom Corbett to tell an audience what they want to hear, but voters should look at the candidates’ records and decide who best can reform Pennsylvania’s government and balance its budget,” said Onorato spokesman Brian Herman, in a statement. “Dan Onorato has six years of balanced budgets with no property tax increases, versus Tom Corbett’s one-year 20 percent property tax hike.”

Herman, in an interview with PoliticsPA, defended citing the 22-year-old vote as relevant to a campaign in 2010.

“Tom Corbett has so little experience, you have to go back 22 years to find anything relevant to the office he’s trying to run for,” the spokesman said.

The Corbett campaign shot back that Onorato’s own record shows how inclined the Democrat is to support tax hikes, including an infamous levy placed on poured alcohol drinks in Allegheny County. In a dossier provided to PoliticsPA, it cited 10 instances of Onorato suggesting, voting for, or enacting a tax as a public official.

“As evidences by his record, Dan Onorato has never met a tax he didn’t like or didn’t hike,” said Corbett campaign spokesman Kevin Harley. “If he is so concerned about a tax vote that Tom Corbett cast as a township supervisor 22 years ago, then he should join Corbett in signing a no new-tax pledge.”

Polls have shown the GOP attorney general maintaining a double-digit lead over his opponent, a margin that data indicate is strongly tied to the public’s distaste of Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell.

“Onorato’s latest attack is a desperate act by a desperate campaign,” said Harley.

Corbett’s no-tax pledge, and whether he can keep it if he assumes office, has been one of the gubernatorial campaign’s biggest debates. Many officials in Harrisburg, on both sides of the aisle, consider it impossible, with Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) going so far to say, in public, that he saw no way it could be done.

The state faces what some project to be a $5 billion deficit next fiscal year with the expiration of federal stimulus money and expected bump in state pension payments.

The no-tax issue came up again in the Capitol on Monday, when lawmakers attended an address by PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler on how the state can solve a $3 billion gap in its transportation infrastructure needs. Rendell has said the state needs to approve a funding-plan now because if Corbett wins, he won’t approve any tax increases to help pay for the repair of roads, bridges and mass-transit systems.

Senate Republicans, however, have remained steadfast in opposition to approving a plan this year. They maintain they can approve a better proposal next year that would include tax hikes, even if Corbett is governor.

“Good for him,” said Senator John Rafferty (R-Chester), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, when asked about Corbett’s pledge.

“Candidates say a lot, and when they get in office maybe they see things a little differently,” Rafferty said.

Told about the comments, Harley insisted not raising taxes is possible.

“We look forward to working with Senator Rafferty and his colleagues in showing them how to developing common-sense budgets that do not raise taxes,” he said.