Centre County Sen. Jake Corman took over in November as the majority leader of the state Senate after Dominic Pileggi, who represents Delaware and Chester counties, was ousted from his position by his colleagues.
Since then, Corman’s tried to come across as a more conservative leader of the state Republican party — Pileggi was pushed out for being too moderate — but has already made statements that have eased Philadelphians’ concerns that they lost an ally in the GOP.
Billy Penn sat down in Harrisburg with Corman to talk about booze, pot, Uber, education and how we can keep millennials in Pennsylvania cities. Here’s what he said (some of the interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity):
Billy Penn: I wanted to ask you about something you said earlier this month. Some Philadelphians were happy to hear that you talked about how PA’s health really depends on a healthy Philadelphia. Can you elaborate on that?
Corman: We’re a commonwealth. And commonwealth means that we care about all parts of our community commonly, and as Pennsylvanians and as people, and we’re only as healthy as our weakest link is, so to speak. And I’m not saying Philadelphia is our weakest link, but Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the nation, it’s the largest city in Pennsylvania by far.
Every time Mayor Nutter has come to us, we’ve tried to be responsive. Of all the mayors that I’ve served with, he’s been great to come and work with.
Billy Penn: What has he done differently than previous mayors, and what are your hopes for the new mayor?
Corman: Well, I never saw John Street. He sort of ignored us. When Mayor Nutter would come, he would come with solutions. He wouldn’t just come with his hand out. But the new mayor candidates, I don’t know them all. I know Tony Williams very well, obviously. I know Jim Kenney very well, and they seem to be the leaders. But hopefully we keep the same type of relationship as we have with Mayor Nutter, and if we end up with one of those two, I’m sure we will.
Billy Penn: When you took over for Senator Pileggi, I know some Philadelphians felt like just geographically speaking, maybe they lost an ally in the senate leadership. What would you say about how in tune you are with the city, despite coming from central PA?
Corman: Well, against my wishes, my son became a Phillies fan and an Eagles fan.
Billy Penn: So are you a Pittsburgh sports fan?
Corman: Yes, but my wife is from Allentown.
Billy Penn: Gotcha
Corman: But it just goes back to what I said earlier. If Philadelphia is thriving and doing well, then it’s less issues they need from us and less revenue they need from us because they’re creating their own wealth. I’ve been to Philadelphia since I’ve been majority leader about five times already, I plan on going back many more. I’ve spent some good time down at the Navy Yard, we toured a company, it was really cool. Talk about millennials. Urban Outfitters. Talk about a cool place. The Navy Yard is trying to base itself on sort of a younger audience, a younger clientele, and that’s great and for any community to be successful. You have to have families to want to live there.
Billy Penn: Speaking of young people, with record numbers of young professionals and millennials moving to both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, how important is it to you that those young people stay in Pennsylvania and aren’t bolting for New York or DC?
Corman: It’s paramount. Pennsylvania has a very large senior citizen population, and Pennsylvania has a very large budget to support those senior citizens. The only way that that revenue is created is when we have young people here working. Working and creating wealth. So having a place like the city of Philadelphia where they want to come and locate is tremendous, because they have opportunities there. The next step though is that once they become families, that they want to stay, they don’t want to move to the suburbs necessarily. I think it’s great the work that’s been done to make cities attractive for younger populations.
Billy Penn: I want to talk a bit about education. I know that you have said Governor Wolf’s budget proposal is unrealistic, his spending plan is unrealistic. Meanwhile, Philadelphia schools specifically are struggling. Some of them are running out of toilet paper, some of them don’t have textbooks. How do you plan to compromise there and —
Corman: Well sure, but I have a couple questions there, and we want to be as helpful to Philadelphia schools as we possibly can, but last time I checked, in Philadelphia, we spend all in about $12,000 per child in the city of Philadelphia, which is not at the bottom, it’s somewhere in the middle, and the money they get from the state is somewhere in the middle.
So I’m not sure why they don’t have toilet paper or textbooks. It’s not like they’re getting such a little amount of money, they’re getting $12,000 per child. Of the 500 school districts, it’s right in the middle. The question I think Philadelphia needs to ask themselves is, what is it about their local process that they’re getting this type of money and not being able to supply basic needs for the children?
And let’s not forget — we recently did a cigarette tax for the city of Philadelphia schools, we recently did a sales tax for the city, so we’ve tried to be responsive. Governor Wolf’s proposal is based on a $4.5 billion tax increase, which he’s not going to get. It’s just a fact. I think the best thing we can do for the city is pension reform.
Billy Penn: There seems to be at least some appetite in Philadelphia for the dismantling of the SRC, people think it’s mismanaging school funds. What’s the talk in Harrisburg about how the Philadelphia school district is managed, and do you think the SRC is doing an alright job?
Corman: I do. Look, it’s a tough issue, but I don’t know what the alternative would be. Just to give it back to the school board and city council?
Billy Penn: Some people are advocating for local control.
Corman: It’s over a billion dollars out of the state budget to go to the Philadelphia school district. I still think that the SRC is important. I think it’s important that we show some responsibility, and not just ignore it and whatever we can do to make it better, we will. But it’s obviously, it educates more children than anyone, so it’s obviously important to the commonwealth.
Billy Penn: With regard to liquor privatization vs. modernization, the Democrats seem to think that lawmakers can make the system appear private without actually selling it. Do you buy that?
Corman: If prohibition ended today, we wouldn’t create the system we have. But unwinding the system we have is difficult, and we’ve always tried to take this as one large piece of legislation and try to get everyone’s interests done in it, which has been very difficult. It would probably be smarter if we piecemeal-ed it, take small steps in that direction, accomplish some things. We can modernize the current system at the same time, but move toward something that makes sense for consumers. That’s ultimately what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about convenience, selection and price for consumers. We can move toward something that makes sense for consumers, but take it in steps so that when we accomplish these steps and people find out that the world didn’t come to an end, we can take the next steps.
Billy Penn: What would the first step be?
Corman: You can start by store-in-stores, where right now, liquor stores in certain areas are unprofitable and lose money, but you have to do it because you have a monopolistic system, so you’ve got to supply it, but maybe they can begin to allow for stores within grocery stores. One of the things that is a big initiative of the [Liquor Control Board] is to put their liquor stores near grocery stores. Well why don’t you just put them in grocery stores?
Billy Penn: With regard to the minimum wage, some Republicans have said maybe there be a small increase. Could there be a compromise there?
Corman: Well, I think we should raise the minimum wage. I think the last time we addressed it was 2005, so i think it’s appropriate. Now the question always is how much, and if we shoot for the moon in some quarters, then nothing is going to happen. If we look for a reasonable approach to move it forward, I think it’s something we can do.
Billy Penn: One thing young people really care about right now, especially in Philadelphia, is ride-sharing and transportation —
Corman: You don’t like driving the Schuylkill every day?
Billy Penn: Luckily I don’t have to. I had to do it this morning, and it was not a good time. Do you think services like Uber and Lyft should be classified as a totally different type of transportation method, or do you think they should be classified as taxis like they are currently in Philadelphia?
Corman: Well. Uber and Lyft and those types of companies are the future. Uber is in State College. And I think, what a great thing for college kids. It’s only done through credit cards, and parents give you the credit card because they don’t want you drinking and driving, and so you just call ‘em up and you’re home before you know it.
I’m not trying to devalue the licenses that the cab companies have now and things that they’ve paid for, but at the same time, this is the business model that’s moving forward. I was in Philadelphia at the restaurant and went on my Uber app, and it was about a minute and a half. I could barely get up from my table to the front door, and it was sitting there. I just think the consumer is going to want that. I think we should embrace the model for everybody.
Billy Penn: Marijuana decriminalization has been in effect in Philly for about six months now and there’s been a huge decrease in arrests for possession of a small amount. What are your thoughts on decriminalization in a statewide sense? Is that something you would ever consider?
Corman: Listen, never say never. I never thought I would be for medicinal marijuana, which I have now voted for. So it’s like anything else. Let’s take steps. I’m all for dealing with sentencing laws and so forth to, not decriminalize it, but certainly punish appropriately people who are involved in nonviolent crimes. Having said that, I think we can get a medicinal marijuana bill through the Senate, which I think we can do fairly soon, which will take us a step in that direction, but I don’t have any plans anywhere in the near future dealing with decriminalization or recreational use. That’s something we’re not even considering at this point in time.
Billy Penn: So what are your political aspirations?
Corman: Let me get to tomorrow. Who knows where life takes you? If you had asked me in September if I would be the majority leader now, I would have said no. But events happened, and here I am. So we’ll see. I’m just trying to work hard. Trying to be coach of the year in Bellefonte Little League. I’m an assistant coach there. I have three kids on the same team, they’re 12, 10 and 8, and all on the same team. So I tell them that dad has no role in the lineup. I tell them not to yell at me. But I’m the assistant coach. I couldn’t do head coach. I told Governor Wolf that our budget meetings are planned around my kids’ Little League schedule. He seemed to be alright with that.
Billy Penn: One more question. So in 2002, PoliticsPA said you were the best dressed lawmaker in Harrisburg. Now that you’re majority leader, is that still true?
Corman: If it is, it’s because of my wife. I never would have been named best dressed in 1998 when I got here when I wasn’t married, and then I got married and got a whole new wardrobe. So I don’t know if that’s accurate or not still, but clearly would be to my wife’s credit if it is.
Photo: Courtesy of Jake Corman’s office