Harrisburg doesn’t sound like much of a happening place right now. Protesters and lobbyists are a rare sight in the hallways of the Capitol. The only people there, it seems, are the lawmakers and Governor Tom Wolf, trying to
land verbal haymakers at each other agree on a budget.
This budget stalemate represents the most prominent issue of Wolf’s time as governor. But has he done anything else? Billy Penn looks at the first six-plus months of Wolf’s term, explains the successes and failures and compares him to his most recent predecessors, Tom Corbett and Ed Rendell. For each category, Wolf is graded on a 1 to 5 scale by — what else — Wolf emoji.
The budget: ? ?
No, the budget hasn’t passed yet. And with members of the Republican-controlled legislature calling Wolf things like “unreasonable” and “unrealistic” and Wolf saying he’s not going to roll over, we’re not likely to get one any time soon.
The handwringing dates back to March. Wolf introduced a budget plan then that would have raised sales, income, cigarette taxes and more by a total of 16 percent across the board to restore money to schools, alleviate some of Pennsylvania’s deficit and reform property taxes. And the Republican-controlled House and Senate wanted nothing to do with it. They passed a budget just before the June 30 deadline that would have reformed the state’s pension system and privatized liquor. Wolf vetoed it. So now here we are more than a month later with no budget.
No matter how calm Wolf acts about the impasse, he doesn’t want to begin approaching Rendell territory. Rendell is the Michael Jordan of late Pennsylvania budgets, having not passed one on time during either of his two terms, and his performance in 2003 was the equivalent of Jordan’s flu game, something that will not soon be forgotten and ended well but probably hurt like hell while it was going on.
In 2003, Rendell first introduced a budget that he didn’t really like, but the Republicans passed it anyway. So Rendell decided to veto it and held up billions of dollars for schools. That made many people none too happy during the fall, but Rendell ended up getting the tax increase on cigarettes and the use of slot revenue to reduce taxes he wanted when the budget finally passed in December, about six months after it was due.
Corbett had an advantage that neither Wolf nor Rendell had: a legislature controlled by his party. He didn’t receive a single vote from Democrats in the Pennsylvania house or senate but united all the Republicans on his first budget. That was enough for it to pass, a budget that was similar to the one he proposed in March of that year. It contained no tax increases and several cuts, including to public education. The cuts Corbett made throughout his term would end up dogging him as he tried for re-election last year.
Major campaign promises: ???
When Wolf was elected, he emphasized the need to tax the natural gas industry and get more money for education. His Education Reinvestment Act addresses both of those concerns, taxing frackers about 5 percent and sending most of the proceeds to schools. Of course, the plan has stalled with the budget.
Wolf has already been able to enact some of his promises, though. In February, he began the transition away from Corbett’s Healthy PA plan and expanded Medicaid. Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty the same month (Philly DA Seth Williams later challenged it, and the Supreme Court will evaluate Wolf’s decision). Through executive orders, he’s banned gifts to political appointees and restored an order that banned new drilling leases on state lands.
But Wolf won the election running as a businessman promising to use his financial wherewithal to craft a tax reform plan that would solve some of Pennsylvania’s budget and education problems. He proposed a plan through his budget, but that budget hasn’t come close to passing yet. Wolf also hasn’t done anything to address campaign finance reform, another major promise.
Public Appearances: ????
Wolf has so far been a major improvement over Corbett when it comes to public and media appearances. In his first few months as governor, Corbett rarely held press conferences or kept an open schedule. Wolf’s schedule has been packed with media availability, radio interviews and especially school visits. As of June, he had visited 30 schools across the state, seeking input for how they could best use government funding.
Controversial appointments have been a common thread for Pennsylvania’s last three governors. People complained Rendell favored too many Philadelphians, and Corbett was derided for not caring enough about dogs. Seriously. He replaced a veteran leader of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement with a former bank manager.
Wolf’s appointments have featured similar scrutiny. It began when he cleaned house on his first day in office, rescinding dozens of Corbett appointments. Some of those decisions alienated Republicans and among the people removed was Erik Arneson, the head of the open records office. He challenged Wolf’s decision, and the Commonwealth Court overturned Arneson’s removal in June.
Wolf’s appointment to lead the state police, Marcus Brown, was rejected in June by the Republican Senate. Brown, previously the superintendent of the Maryland state police, had also drawn criticism from the state troopers union, who didn’t like Brown wearing the gray state troopers uniform when he didn’t graduate as a Pennsylvania state trooper. Wolf’s new nomination is Tyree Blocker, a retired state police major.
Katie McGinty, Wolf’s chief of staff, has already left. She’s running for Pat Toomey’s senate seat, so it’s not like anything scandalous happened, but it still can’t be easy on Wolf to lose his chief of staff within the first few months of his term.
On the plus side, Wolf’s appointments have been praised for contributing to greater diversity than is often seen in Harrisburg.