Changing Harrisburg will take longer than a year, Wolf says
HARRISBURG — Democrat Tom Wolf’s first year as Pennsylvania governor was consumed by a knock-down, drag-out budget fight, and perhaps it had to be expected.
Pennsylvania governors historically have had difficult first years and Wolf, the scion of a business family, had run as a liberal, soundly defeating an unpopular Tom Corbett to win the right to share power with the largest and perhaps most conservative Republican legislative majorities in modern Pennsylvania history.
Wolf pledged in his inaugural speech to be a different and unconventional governor who would use his business-world experience of focusing everyone on the same mission.
A year later, he has not secured any of his leading campaign promises or budget goals, key among them making the state’s tax system fairer to the middle class, and fixing massive funding disparities between rich and poor school districts. State government set a record-long budget stalemate that has crowded out other major priorities and virtually overshadowed anything else he did accomplish.
He very nearly struck gold in December, securing the votes for a budget deal he backed and a $1 billion-plus tax increase that hit yet another roadblock before Christmas.
In an interview, Wolf said 2015 was not “a normal first year” for a governor, but he gave no apologies for a stalemate that has many in the Capitol shaking their heads.
Wolf, a first-time office holder unaccustomed to political deal-making, insisted he wasn’t learning on the job, and does not claim to have all the answers. But, he said, he stood up for what was right, like when it came to refusing to paper over a long-term budget deficit that has damaged the state’s credit rating.
“I am trying to change Harrisburg,” Wolf told The Associated Press. “I am a different kind of governor. … I recognize that I’m not going to change everything in one year.”
For sure, Wolf had victories.
His administration fixed complexities and pitfalls in the Medicaid expansion begun by Corbett and oversaw the extension of health insurance to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians.
It introduced an online voter registration system that enrolled more than 60,000 people and won a state Supreme Court case over his refusal to sign execution warrants until he is satisfied with the fairness of Pennsylvania’s death penalty.
But he signed no major laws, and Pennsylvania remained among the slowest states in job growth.
Key constituencies — labor unions, big-city mayors, Democratic Party leaders and environmental groups — still support Wolf, and nearly every Democratic lawmaker stuck with Wolf through the budget fight. A Franklin and Marshall College poll from late October showed more voters blame lawmakers than Wolf for the budget stalemate.
Allies’ biggest criticism of Wolf’s first-year missteps is that he did not deal quickly and severely enough behind the scenes with Republican obstinacy. Some allies say Wolf showed the backbone necessary in the budget battle — vetoing GOP-penned budget plans, for instance — to show that he can’t be pushed around.
Few Republican lawmakers and business advocates warmed to Wolf, and many accused his administration of being ideologically rigid, unduly political and spiteful. Senate Republicans complained that Wolf could not, or would not, force House Democrats to split with labor unions and seal a bipartisan budget deal.
Lawmakers closer to the political middle tend to assign responsibility broadly to Wolf and top GOP lawmakers.
“I think there’s enough blame to go around,” said Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks.
Some saw the first year as an inevitable testing ground and learning process for an ambitious governor and the huge, entrenched and increasingly conservative GOP majorities.
“You need to switch out of campaign mode and into governance, and that is not unusual for that to take about a year,” said David Patti, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council.
Wolf now faces the prospect of delivering his second budget address, on Feb. 9, with billions of dollars for schools still in limbo and a yawning deficit unresolved.
Perhaps this kind of year was entirely predictable.
Pennsylvania’s last three elected governors — Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett — all had had difficult first years, said pollster and political science professor G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall.
Ridge and Rendell recovered and handily won re-election. Corbett did not.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, warned that Wolf is in danger of traveling the same path as Corbett, who, he said, failed at building relationships with legislators and, as a result, had little to show when he ran for re-election.
“Not one major piece of policy to help move Pennsylvania forward has (Wolf) brought home in his first year,” Scarnati said. “And this is the year when he has all his gravitas.”
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy .
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.