By MARK SCOLFORO
HARRISBURG - The annual Harrisburg ritual known as the governor's budget address is about to bring Pennsylvania's power elite to the state House chamber for the chief executive to review his record in office, lay out policy priorities and unveil his proposal for the coming year's spending.
This year's speech will be given by a Republican incumbent with a fairly extensive record behind him and a nine-month re-election campaign in front of him. He also faces low popularity ratings, a challenging revenue forecast and a pack of would-be Democratic candidates nipping at his heels.
When Gov. Tom Corbett climbs the dais in about three weeks to deliver his fourth budget address, he might be wondering if what he is about to say will either seal political defeat in November or send him on to a second term.
What will he say about education spending? Will he seek major reforms to public-sector pensions or less ambitious changes to free up money in the immediate future? How might he talk about human services, which consume a large portion of state spending? Will he offer up completely new ideas or generally play it safe?
"I think it's fair to say no governor has had to grapple with as many problems and as many large, intractable problems as this governor's had," Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said Friday. "What we're seeing now is ... that facing the difficult challenges as he's done has put the commonwealth in a better position in terms of putting our fiscal house in order, where we're now able to do some things."
Zogby said pension reform, elements of Corbett's "Healthy PA" initiative and education funding will be addressed.
"The governor wants to put more money in public education, and I think that's something you're going to hear about in the budget," Zogby said.
The speech will accompany the release of the proposed 2014-15 budget, a thick document that will immediately be combed through by state agencies, lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and others who want to see what the governor thinks should happen when negotiations intensify in May and June.
"Everybody looks at the individual line items," Zogby said. "And then you get into education, it's always of interest - how much is coming to my school districts? Every lawmaker wants a spreadsheet."
Zogby has projected a $1.4 billion deficit that will require cuts, new revenues or a combination of the two, though those numbers won't fully come into focus for several more months.
The gloomy budget forecast is one reason why talks on privatization of the state liquor system and public-sector pension reform - Corbett priorities he was unable to get approved last summer - seem to be gaining momentum. Proposals to expand online gambling or incorporate keno into the lottery system are also potentially in the mix.
Corbett's major legislative achievement of the past year was the $2.3 billion-a-year transportation funding bill that passed in November, funded by an increase in the gasoline tax - an idea he proposed in last year's budget address. His budget speech might mention the money is already coming in, and work is being started.
It's also a decent guess that he might talk about having passed general appropriation bills by the June 30 deadline in each of his three years in office.
Less than a week after the speech, budget hearings will get underway in the Capitol, and no one can know where things will go from there.
"The governor puts out his spending proposal in February, and we go through the spring, understanding it's a negotiation process with the General Assembly," Zogby said. "They have their own priorities about what they'd like to spend on."
Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.