Power sharing between governor, GOP enters new territory
HARRISBURG — Political-power sharing at Pennsylvania’s Capitol will enter unexplored territory when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the largest legislative majorities of any political party in modern Pennsylvania history — in this case Republicans — begin a new two-year legislative session.
The legislative elections took place amid a wave breaking across Pennsylvania for President-elect Donald Trump.
Republicans picked up three seats in each chamber. Voters helped the GOP successfully defend seats in moderate suburban Philadelphia where Trump was deeply unpopular, and continued a longer-term trend of tilting western Pennsylvania to Republicans.
That means in January the House GOP will seat the largest majority of either party in the chamber in 60 years, when the Constitution allowed seven more seats, or 210. In the Senate, the GOP will seat the biggest majority of either side in almost 80 years, since the 1949-50 session.
The GOP majorities were already large, forcing Wolf to make significant concessions in past two years, primarily in his bid to increase taxes to wipe out a massive budget deficit and fix school-funding disparities that are among the nation’s widest. Along the way, he hit a wall in his drive to make Pennsylvania’s tax structure more equitable, including a school-funding system that leans heavily on local property owners.
And while the Legislature has approved hundreds of millions more for schools, it was short of what Wolf originally requested. Meanwhile, Wolf lost the battle over how to distribute the money.
A tax increase will likely be back on Wolf’s agenda, with budget makers expecting another large projected budget deficit. Wolf, presumably, will have his 2018 re-election bid on his mind. And adding intrigue to the coming legislative session is the expectation that one Republican senator — Scott Wagner, a trashing hauling magnate from Wolf’s own York County — and possibly others will launch a gubernatorial bid to challenge Wolf.
Wolf downplayed the impact of Republican victories in Tuesday’s election, saying it didn’t change much.
“I’ve been working with an overwhelmingly Republican Senate for the last two years, I’ve been working with an overwhelmingly Republican House for the last two years, we’ve gotten some pretty remarkable things done,” Wolf told reporters Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the victories solidify a dynamic that was already there. Despite a protracted budget stalemate that consumed Wolf’s first year, Senate Republicans passed much of what they set out to pass, such as changes to the state system of selling wine and liquor and to benefits in the state’s two major public pension systems, Corman said.
“Obviously, the second year was a better year working with the governor, and if he takes that perspective then we can get a lot done,” Corman said Friday. “If he goes back to a large tax-and-spend agenda, he’ll have troubles.”
Disagreements between House and Senate GOP majorities were perhaps as big of a stumbling block as any dispute between Wolf and Republican lawmakers.
Still, Corman made it clear that Republicans would continue to pursue their agenda, such as advancing alternatives to traditional public schools. Larger Republican majorities also make it at least slightly more likely that Wolf will have to make even bigger concessions if he wants to advance his priorities.
With voters coming out primarily to cast a ballot in the presidential election, it was debatable how much they considered Wolf’s performance when they delivered the legislative victories to Republicans.
Still, Wolf did not excuse himself. The election showed that Americans are frustrated, angry, worried and anxious, and that everyone in public life needs to do better, he said. The state also must find a way to lighten the property tax burden and spur more job and economic growth, Wolf said.
“I am, I guess, the leader of the party in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said, “and so I have to take responsibility for not doing as well as we should have done. But again, I’m trying to recognize here at the state level, with what we can do, what we need to do to address the concerns, the challenges, frustrations and anxieties of Pennsylvanians.”
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