A few minutes with Joe the Plumber

Joe the Plumber (aka Samuel J.Wurzelbacher) headlined state Representative Sam Rohrer’s Mobilize for Liberty event in Harrisburg today, giving the Berks County lawmaker his support a few hours after Rohrer mustered just a dozen votes in the State Republican Committee’s gubernatorial endorsement meeting.

Joe’s endorsement is apparently quite the coup. He says more than 200 politicians have asked for support this year, but so far, he’s only backed five. “I need to talk to candidates before I endorse,” he told me afterwards, explaining that his bar is pretty high. “We have a series of conversations – 20 to 30 minute conversations – and I grill them. I ask them questions about energy, education – make sure they’re straight.” Wurzelbacher says he also vets candidates online.

So why Rohrer? He says they share many of the same values – the Second Amendment, states’ independence, “integrity, honesty.” Plus, “Sam is really favored amongst the tea parties. It takes a lot for them to get behind an individual.”

Wurzelbacher touched on several different points during his speech, and many of them were surprising. He said he doesn’t support Sarah Palin anymore. Why? Because she’s backing John McCain’s re-election effort. “John McCain is no public servant,” he told the room, calling the 2008 Republican nominee a career politician.

I pointed out he’d just be plain old Sam Wurzelbacher of Ohio — Joe the Plumber wouldn’t exist —  without McCain. His response was blunt. “I don’t owe him s—. He really screwed my life up, is how I look at it.”

Wurzelbacher said, “McCain was trying to use me. I happened to be the face of middle Americans. It was a ploy.”

So why’s he still milking the Joe the Plumber image, appearing at conservative events across the country? Wurzelbacher says it’s his duty to take advantage of the platform he’s been given. He wants to talk up the issues he cares about, and encourage the grassroots tea party movement.

Wurzelbacher also told the room to lay off the extreme personal attacks on President Obama.  He said people who question whether Obama was born in the United States or compare him to Hitler “belittle and set back” the conservative movement.  “The birthers, the truthers — if people are trying to bunch them [with tea partiers], that would kill us. That just pushes away Democrats and independents who might come out for our cause otherwise.” He said he actually likes Obama, in some ways. “I think his ideology is un-American, but he’s one of the more honest politicians. At least he told us what he wanted to do.”

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A tale of two ballrooms — update

There are two contrasting events underway at the Harrisburg Hilton right now.

In one ballroom, members of the State Republican Committee are voting to endorse candidates in the Senate, gubernatorial and lieutenant governor primaries. Most are well-dressed. All are what you’d call party insiders – members of county Republican committees, elected officials, major donors.

They’ve just voted overwhelmingly to endorse Tom Corbett’s campaign, with only a dozen of the 348 voters supporting Sam Rohrer.

But a few paces down the hall, a few hundred people in jeans, boots, field jackets and baseball caps are taking part I Rohrer’s “Mobilize for Liberty” rally. Judging by the signs they were holding in the lobby, the majority of them are against an official party endorsement.  “They want to choose for themselves, and don’t like the fact that kingmakers and power brokers…are trying to force people out of the race before petitions are filed,” is how state Representative Daryl Metcalfe put it.

The State Committee meeting began the morning with a roll call vote on whether or not to offer an endorsement. Members voted by overwhelming margins – 300-47, 297-51 and 213-135, in the Senate, gubernatorial and L-G races, respectively – to go ahead and make official selections.

After the balloting was done, Chairman Rob Gleason warned party members to fall in line behind the endorsed candidates. “Rebelling against our party’s decision may sound romantic, but it will hurt the nominee and the party in the long run,” he said.

That didn’t sit well with Jeff Coleman, who’s running Rohrer’s campaign. He called Gleason’s statement condescending, and said it “reflects a real disrespect and level of arrogance against the grassroots members of the party.”

“What happened in Florida,” Coleman warned, referencing the grassroots movement against Governor Charlie Crist’s Senate campaign, “could very well happen in Pennsylvania.”

UPDATE: The Corbett camp is defending the endorsement process, calling it open and democratic. Campaign manager Brian Nutt said, “the state committee members are elected by Republican voters in their particular counties or districts, and that’s who they represent.”

Corbett agreed with Nutt’s assessment, and suggested the people calling for an open primary may be doing so out of confusion. “Now, I think what we have is many new people who’ve become involved who may not have understood that process,” he said. “And they may have voted for these people in the past and not even know it. So what we have is maybe a new group of people becoming involved and interested in elections. But there is a process. We are a nation of rules, we have rules within our party. What you saw there was the rules being followed.”

Republican State Committee Forum=

Good evening. It’s not the Olympic Opening Ceremonies — but Pennsylvania’s Republican State Committee meets tonight and tomorrow to endorse candidates in this spring’s statewide primaries. Gubernatorial and Senate candidates will participate in a forum tonight, and I’ll be live-blogging the events.

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8:19 Not too many details about that reform plan from Corbett. He says he’ll fill in the specifics later, but then spoke broadly about making lawmakers accountable for the line-item details of their per-diems.  Both Corbett and Rohrer said Pennsylvania shouldn’t have accepted federal stimulus dollars — though Corbett acknowledged that, in reality, Pennsylvania didn’t really have much say in the matter.

Rohrer knocked Corbett a bit for suggesting CareerLink should be expanded, saying the state doesn’t need any new programs.

From the “a bit off-message” department, State GOP Executive Director Luke Bernstein brushed reporters away from Corbett after two questions, saying something along the lines of, “people paid money to eat dinner with the Attorney General.”

7:52 And…that’s it! A short debate. Off to question the candidates. More updates to come.

7:52 Corbett says he and Rohrer “agree we…must cut the size of this budget.” Praises legislative Republicans for “stopping the governor…last time.” Opines fact state “can’t go back a billion dollars.”

Mentions his two-year budget cycle idea. “It would bring certainty and predictability to the people who do receive state money.” Also mentions Welfare, Education and Corrections. “If we reduce just four percent of the errors ineligibility guidelines we’d save [300+ million] dollars.”

Says he’s do “zero-based budgeting,” to ask each agency to justify its entire budget. “You have to go in with the desire to spend the money carefully.”

7:48 Question 2: What’s your plan to reign in spending? What programs would you cut?

Rohrer — “One thing you can do is this — you can reduce spending across the board.” Rohrer says he’s pledged he will not sign a tax increase bill. “The voters of this state cannot afford a tax increase.”

You have to go where you spend the most money. Welfare, Education and Corrections. “I can guarantee you there are duplicity programs. Things…we must not do and cannot do, and exceed our ability to pay.”

“Saying no to federal money and cutting strings that require us to spend federal money,” another idea, he says.

7:45 Rohrer — people don’t leave the state because they don’t like it here. They leave because there are no jobs, or because the cost of living is too high in Pennsylvania. … Why are there no jobs? Lists “a hostile business climate.” Labor climate — “fact is, more of our business has gone down south because of labor climate,” more than taxes.

Says people can’t afford to live in PA due to property taxes. “They can’t afford to live here, so they go somewhere they can live, and they generally go south.”

“The solution isn’t new programs. Frankly, if we want to reduce spending we’ve got to cut programs.”

7:42 First Youtube question — how would you keep young workers in PA?

Corbett — It’s important to me my kids stayed in Pennsylvania. (They’re in their thirties.) “We need to start looking, back in high school and college — we’re not guiding our students into [tech jobs].” Says workforce development boards could help guide students into these types of careers. “We need to look at CareerLink….we need to expand that to our college students and our high schools who are graduating.”

The most important area is the business tax climate. “We are losing 1 in 4 PAns every year. They are going to places that are competitive, like Texas, Florida….places that have a tax environment that understands business is good, that free enterprise is good.”

7:39 Now it’s Corbett’s turn. “The same message I’ve recieved — Pennsylvania has seen better times, but it’s struggling.”  Mentions decline of “stimulus money we should never have taken in the first place,” pension fund, and other financial issues.

State needs “leadership that brings results, not rhetoric. It’s time to change Harrisburg. We all know that.”

“You know when I made promises as Attorney General, I kept them. I was one of 13 Republican AGs…that told the Congress, do not make exceptions for one state to the detriment of other states” (Referencing Ben Nelson’s Medicaid “Nebraska compromise.”

His agenda? “J-O-B-S.” Fiscal discipline, limited government and free enterprise” would do that, he says.

Corbett says he’ll send a reform plan to the GA during his first week on the job. The package would “eliminate WAMs, reduce the state car fleet, reform per-diems — not just for state legislators, but for all government employees.”

“We can and we must reduce taxes.”

7:20 Rohrer’s opening statement: Washington has failed, and so has the Rendell Administration. Says they’ve left “most monumental challenges” to next governor. “The fact of the matter is, politics as normal is gone…the time that we can lead by polls is passed. The time that we can collectively…deal with issues that are convenient or deal with issues we can deal with in the next two years, before the next election…those days have got to stop.”

…”The Rendell Administration has let this state in very poor economic condition.” Calls PA’s tax structure “unfriendly,” and says state’s regulatory climate needs to change. “Instead of putting road blocks in front of small business, actually befriend them.”

Says employees shouldn’t be forced to join a union or pay union dues.

“We are insolvent. We don’t have enough money to pay our bills.”

If PA doesn’t deal with its budget problem swiftly and firmly, “we are going to be like California.” Says NO to all new taxes…”We have a property tax issue. I have led the fight to eliminate the property tax.” Elimination would be good for small businesses, home owners and farmers. “We can’t sustain the way we fund public education. It’s got to change.”

Calls for school choice — “that’s a moral issue. It’s an educational issue.”

Rendell “puts its hand out” to the federal government “at every turn.” State needs to be more financially independent.

7:25 The gubernatorial forum is about to begin. Each candidate will get one question submitted via Youtube.

7:21 Perry called up to stage to receive the GOP’s Leadership Award (it’s a Reagan bust), as well as a personal letter from former President George W. Bush.   Perry is a a Lt. Colonel in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. Perry piloted helicopters and oversaw logistics during the recent tour in southern Iraq.

7:19 Shout-out for Rep. Scott Perry, who recently returned from Iraq

7:12 Renee Amoore: “Do we believe in diversity? Yes! Do we believe in a big tent? [applause] Do we believe we are inclusive of everybody?”

7:09: Proceedings underway. The MCs are doing their best to pump up the crowd. “We’re going to get this party started!”

7:01: People filing into the ballroom. A big band is jazzing up the room. Sounds like the format will be a four-minute opening statement from each candidate, followed by two rounds of questions.

Budget wrap-up

(Harrisburg) — Governor Rendell’s proposed 2010-11 budget would increase state spending by four percent, to 29 billion dollars.

Delivering his eighth and final budget address in the face of a still-shaky economy and a projected 525 million dollar revenue shortfall, Governor Rendell characterized this year’s spending plan as “status quo,” arguing there’s not spending left to eliminate, after last year.

Rendell said  he’s proposing level or slightly reduced spending in most departments, with notable exceptions for welfare, corrections and education – all of which would see budget increases.

During his speech Rendell urged lawmakers to pass the budget by the June 30th deadline for the first time in his administration, referencing last year’s 101-day impasse.

Top Republicans disputed the idea there’s nothing left to cut out of the budget. House Minority Leader Sam Smith:

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati agreed with the sentiment, and singled out the Department of Public Welfare, corrections and pensions funds as areas where those spending efficiencies could be identified.

The most high-profile “new” idea to come from the budget address is a proposal to reduce Pennsylvania’s sales tax from six to four percent, but widen its base by applying the levy to 74 currently exempt items, including newspapers, magazines, candy, gum and basic television bills. Rendell said the present system of loopholes doesn’t make sense.

(Note – when Rendell first floated the idea of removing exemptions last summer, his favorite example was gold bullion. Bullion is NOT on the list of 74 exemptions his administration wants to remove.)

Scarnati called the proposal a tax increase, and says it would be “dead on arrival” in the upper chamber.

Rendell said the shift would generate 531 million dollars. He wants to set that and other new revenue aside in a special fund the state couldn’t tap into until federal stimulus dollars expire in 2011. The reserve account would also include money from proposed taxes on smokeless tobacco, cigars and natural gas drilling.

The sales tax idea – lowering the rate but broadening the base – sounded pretty familiar to Berks County Republican Sam Rohrer, who’s running for governor. Rohrer has pushed a similar concept for years in the House.

Rendell also repeated his recent call for reform, urging lawmakers to pass a campaign contribution limit, and begin working on a merit selection system for judicial appointments.