Four years ago this month, when Tom Wolf was sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 47th governor, he delivered a short, crisp inaugural address from an outside stage behind the Capitol.
He pledged to be “a different kind of leader” whose administration would focus on “jobs that pay, schools that teach, and government that works.”
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Which, come to think of it, is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
Also, given Harrisburg’s history, he spoke of “the need to work together.”
His speech was refreshingly genuine. No bombast. No overreach. With a promised focus that’s pretty basic.
But six weeks later, Democrat Wolf delivered his first budget to a joint session of the Republican-controlled legislature. And the basics got ensnared in the nets of political reality.
Wolf proposed hiking the personal income tax, increasing and expanding the sales tax, taxing the extraction of natural gas, and raising the minimum wage.
It was part of a plan that he said would attack a $2 billion deficit, greatly boosting school funding while also cutting property taxes and thereby reducing total tax burdens on average middle-class families.
Republicans didn’t buy in. Called it unrealistic, a giant tax-and-spend hoax. Three years of budget fights ensued. Only last year, an election year, did a budget pass peacefully. And Wolf’s first term brought no big taxes, no big property-tax cuts.
Yet he did get half the new education spending he sought, and was reelected in a breeze, beating Republican Scott Wagner by a whopping 17 points.
Now, with Wolf set to be inaugurated for a second term on Tuesday, questions arise.
Does he have a mandate to resurrect broad, bold plans of yore with the same vigor that led to years of discord? Or, given that Republicans still control the legislature, is he now more pragmatic about what he can get?
Is a term-limited lame duck able to do big things? Or does never seeking office again (Wolf, 70, says he’s run his last campaign) free one up to swing away?
Fellow Democrat Ed Rendell, the state’s last two-term governor, says, “A lame duck is as a lame duck acts. … I think he intends to be an activist governor.”
Rendell says Wolf should “come out hard-charging” on whatever his prime initiative is (another push for a gas severance tax to fund some aspect of education?) and travel the state to gin up public support.
“I was pushing economic development deals a couple of days before leaving office,” says Rendell. “I think I was a relevant force the whole way through.”
Wolf, during his reelection run, said he’s not looking to raise big taxes. But he’s expected to again call for a shale tax and a hike in the minimum wage -- both of which remain unwelcome in the legislature.
What do others expect?
“I definitely think he’ll be different than in 2015,” says Gene Barr, head of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “He’s not for the chamber’s agenda, things like right-to-work. But there are other things we can work on with him, especially workforce development,” says Barr. “I expect he’ll spend four years trying to do something. He’s a decent guy who wants to do good.”
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, says unions also are interested in workforce issues, including extending apprenticeship programs.
“I think there’s more [legislative] interest in working with this guy,” he says, “And while I think Wolf learned a lot about governing in his first term, that’s not going to stop him from being who he is.”
I think that’s right. Wolf always has been interested in change. In reforms touching health care, ethics, voting, guns, campaign finance, gerrymandering. In expanding democracy and trust in government. A believer, as he said, at his first inaugural, that “all things are possible.”
His first term showed him some things are possible: a little pension reform, a little liquor reform, some ethics reform, medical marijuana.
But it also showed him that even good ideas, if bumped against an ideology largely in love with the status quo, are like fossils trapped in amber.
You can see them. They look great. Just don’t expect them to come to life.