Governor Tom Wolf went from the man in the Jeep who’d get things done to a man with no budget, six months after it’s due.

The governor’s first year is ending in partisan Harrisburg gridlock. Some temporary money — especially for schools — has begun flowing thanks to a line item veto at the end of 2015. And some Philly politics-watchers assert that the region has a friend in Wolf, one that didn’t exist in former Gov. Tom Corbett.

“He is a true friend of Philadelphia on economic development issues,” former Philly mayor and Gov. Ed Rendell said. “I think he’s going to be a great governor, not only for Philadelphia, but for the region.”

Luckily for Wolf, whose approval rating sits at about 50 percent, history shows the first year in office for Pennsylvania governors is usually the toughest — and also isn’t a good predictor of re-election odds.

The budget that wasn’t

Tom Wolf’s struggles in the first year to pass a budget along with his capitol colleagues have been a gift to the Pennsylvania GOP in its attempts to lambaste Wolf for his “disastrous” first year in office. For the last several weeks, the GOP has circulated emails and other messaging that lays out Wolf’s first 365 days, saying he’s chosen politics over policy and used a political action committee to throw shade at Republicans instead of working with them on a budget.

“Wolf decided that instead of negotiating with legislative leaders in the final month before the June 30 budget deadline, he would rather form a shadow political organization to do his bidding,” PA GOP spokeswoman Megan Sweeney said in one of the prepared statements. “Wolf put playing politics over working on policy.”

Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan said it’s Republican legislators who have failed to compromise, saying they are “very content on maintaining the status quo that put us in the mess that we’re in.”

That right there is why the Pennsylvania budget is more than six months late and Wolf is poised to unveil his spending plan for the next one in less than a month. Earlier this month, after several false alarms that made it sound like Wolf and the legislature had come to an agreement on a spending plan, the governor line-item vetoed a budget sent to him. The move effectively released six months of funds to schools and state services that were missing out on funding as the impasse continued, but it shot down other portions of the budget Wolf wasn’t a fan of.

He asked lawmakers to come back to the negotiating table to figure out not only how money would be spent and distributed, but how it would be brought in.

Political polarization

Gov. Tom Wolf briefs reporters on his plans to reject a Republican spending plan.
Gov. Tom Wolf briefs reporters on his plans to reject a Republican spending plan. Credit: Flickr via Office of the Governor

Former Gov. Ed Rendell dragged his budget process in his first year in office through December but says Wolf has it harder than he did, saying he dealt with “transactional” Republican leaders, not “ideological” ones.

“When I negotiated, I eventually came in and gave them some of the things they wanted to compromise on and we were able to close the deal,” he told Billy Penn on Wednesday. “The Tea Party dominates in Harrisburg now much more than they did when I was governor, so it was easier for me.”

Franklin and Marshall pollster and state politics expert G. Terry Madonna said it’s true: Both sides of the aisle are farther apart than ever before, a trend that’s reflective of what’s going on nationally. Congress is experiencing similar deadlock.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans now represent a majority in the legislature that hasn’t been seen in the state since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and they’re expected to come up with a budget alongside a man named the Most Liberal Governor in America. Not to mention that many of the rank-and-file members were elected on the premise that they wouldn’t raise taxes.

“The polarization is much greater, the partisanship is much stronger and the personalities are very different,” Madonna said. “The rhetoric used [during the budget impasse] was much stronger than we’ve seen in the past.”

Sheridan, Wolf’s spokesman, said the governor is looking to compromise but isn’t going to give up on his campaign promises in the coming year. That includes instituting a shale tax and pushing the legislature to pass bills related to legalizing medical marijuana, increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There are reasonable members in both Republican caucuses, and there are a lot of people who want to get things done,” Sheridan said. “But the question is whether extreme right wing members are going to continue to hold things up.”

An ally for Philly?

One of the most important things a governor can do while in a budget impasse is compartmentalize, Rendell said, by not getting bogged down by the budget and leading in other ways.

By some accounts, Wolf’s been able to do that. As promised on the campaign trail, he killed Corbett’s Healthy PA healthcare plan and opted in for federal Medicaid expansion. In the last year, the administration reports some half a million people in Pennsylvania have gotten covered.

He made good on other campaign promises, like instituting a moratorium on the death penalty and signing an executive order gift ban. The Wolf administration has also touted its move to put Naloxone, a drug that treats heroin overdose, in the hands of state police. Many of Wolf’s other campaign promises, the so-called “big ticket items” — a fair funding formula for schools, pension reform, a tax on Marcellus Shale drilling, liquor modernization — have been stalled due to the budget impasse.

Democratic politicos say Wolf’s biggest help, especially for Philly, has come from a focus on education.

Despite taking heat from legislators not from Philadelphia, Wolf has continued to push for a school funding formula that would send more cash to schools with higher rates of poverty. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told Billy Penn he called Wolf in the thick of the impasse to talk about implications for Philly schools.

“I encouraged him to hang in there and continue to fight for Philadelphia’s kids,” Jordan said, “because I know how difficult it is.”

Why his first year may not matter in the long-run

Gov. Tom Wolf stands with past governors at his inauguration ceremony.
Gov. Tom Wolf stands with past governors at his inauguration ceremony. Credit: Flickr via Office of the Governor

It’s just history: every governor since Milton Shapp served in the 1970’s has had a difficult first year in office, with the exception of Gov. Dick Thornburgh who managed the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island during his first year in office. Other than Thornburgh, here’s how things fared for each of the last governors in their first year in office dating back to 1970:

Milton Shapp: Angered voters after passing the state’s first permanent personal income tax that was shot down by the courts. And then he passed another.

Robert Casey: State Republicans were peeved about campaign ads Casey had run against their party and blocked personnel appointments and big parts of his legislative agenda.

Tom Ridge: Supported two unpopular school choice proposals and then signed a legislative pay hike even though he campaigned saying he wouldn’t. After his first year, “one-term Tom” signs popped up across the state.

Rendell: Didn’t get a budget done until December, the longest budget impasse in state history. Until now.

Corbett: Accomplished none of his major initiatives that he laid out in his legislative agenda on the campaign trail and angered many when he slashed government spending that resulted in budget cuts across the board.

In the end, the only one-term governor was a Tom … Corbett. The only other chief state executive who came close to being defeated (and ultimately wasn’t) was Thornburgh, the one governor who actually enjoyed high approval ratings during his first year in office. Rendell didn’t pass an on-time budget once in his first term and cruised to re-election in 2006.

This means that there’s good news for Wolf. Madonna says governors typically have a hard first year in office marked by battles with the legislature, usually because they’re fresh off the campaign trail and are pushing some of their most aggressive policy.

The bad news for the guv is that this year is a legislative election year. So many of the fights he faces are from people running — again — on promises to not raise taxes. That could mean a 2016 in which things get harder.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.