HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Three months ago, Gov. Tom Corbett pushed the state's $50 billion-plus public pension debt to center stage in his re-election campaign, calling it "the driver" that has pushed up local property taxes and siphoned away money badly needed by public schools.
The Republican railed over the Legislature's rejection of his proposals to reduce future employees' pensions in what was largely a move to appease voters still angry over the nearly $1 billion in budget-balancing cuts in state aid to public schools he approved early in his tenure.
But it didn't change the fact that Democratic challenger Tom Wolf continued to lead Corbett by a wide margin.
Now, in the final weeks of the campaign, Corbett has a new boogeyman — Wolf's blueprint for overhauling the state income tax — and is flooding the airwaves with provocative TV spots aimed at voters' fear of the unknown and their aversion to higher taxes.
It appears that this will be Corbett's last, best effort to overcome the double-digit polling deficit he has been unable to crack since Wolf won a four-way Democratic primary race in May.
One TV ad, airing since Sept. 30, features actors in everyday situations facetiously praising Wolf's plan while, amid the humor, suggesting that he wants to saddle the middle class with higher taxes.
"I lay awake at night worrying that Harrisburg just isn't getting enough of our money. Thanks to Wolf, I'm going to be able to sleep again," says a woman in pajamas.
Says a man sitting on a concrete stoop, "Wolf's promising to raise middle-class taxes, and he seems like the type of guy that's going to keep that promise."
In a more recent ad with an edgier approach, a narrator declares ominously that Wolf's "secret plan to raise middle-class taxes has now been exposed" and claims that it would nearly triple the tax for many middle-class families.
"Wolf's massive tax increase means a massive reduction in your take-home pay," the narrator says. "The good news? We found out before Election Day."
Wolf's plan has never been secret, but it is more complicated than the present system, has not been tested in court and lacks specifics about a couple of important factors.
The York businessman has said he wants to make the system fairer by requiring wealthier people to pay more in taxes while reducing or eliminating taxes on people with lower incomes. Individuals with incomes of between $70,000 and $90,000 — the upper end of what he considers middle-class — would not pay higher taxes than they currently pay, he says.
"The middle class hasn't had a tax break in over 20 years so I'm not sure ... how my desire to see a fairer tax system ... turns into an increase," Wolf said Friday. "But in (Corbett's) mathematics, evidently it does."
Uncertainty over the tax rate and the amount of the "universal exemption" for all taxpayers — the income level at which no tax would be levied — has invited hypothetical analyses whose value is mainly political.
For example, the supposed near-tripling of taxes for some households — the 188 percent figure cited in Corbett's ads — comes from a Commonwealth Foundation analysis that assumes Wolf would need to produce an additional $4.6 billion for education from the income tax to fulfill his campaign promises. That includes money to reverse the 2011 funding cuts and to ensure the state government shoulders half of the cost public school funding burden, up from the current one-third.
But that leaves out some important points.
For one thing, Wolf has said he would not use the income tax alone to raise that new money. His other proposals include imposing a 5 percent severance tax on Pennsylvania's thriving natural gas industry and closing business tax loopholes.
Also, the Harrisburg-based foundation, a libertarian policy shop that does not disclose its donors, does not mention the reciprocal reduction in local school property taxes that Wolf says is the essential other half of the massive shift in education funding he advocates.
Yet as long as Wolf refuses to fill in the blanks in his income-tax plan — something he says will have to wait until sometime after Election Day, assuming he's elected — the Corbett camp will be happy to explain it for him.
Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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