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What will Gov. Wolf’s second term look like? | John Baer

Gov. Wolf's first term included lots of rough going with the legislature. Lately things are better. Does that presage a smoother ride Wolf's second time around?

Gov. Tom Wolf stands for a portrait at the Inquirer newsroom in Philadelphia on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Gov. Tom Wolf stands for a portrait at the Inquirer newsroom in Philadelphia on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead more-- Staff

Pennsylvania saw two versions of Tom Wolf during his first four-year term.

There was the daunting leftie Democrat – whom the Huffington Post called America's "most liberal" governor — pressing Republicans to pass big tax-and-spend plans.

He fought with the legislature over budgets. Didn't even sign the first three.

Called for multibillion-dollar tax increases, on sales, personal income, and more, and a severance tax on natural gas. Didn't get them. Pushed for a hike in the minimum wage. No dice.

He warned that without higher taxes, "devastating cuts" to education and social services, and a $2 billion deficit, would sink the ship of state.

He even scowled at lawmakers during his 2016 budget address that they should act to save the day or "find another job."

There were whispers: Would Wolf be a "one-term Tom"?

Ah, but more recently, especially this year as Wolf faced reelection, things were very different.

Suddenly, the annual state budget sailed through. Wolf signed it. The deficit was a thing of the past. Talk of raising taxes on income and/or sales was gone. And at a bill-signing last month in the Capitol, he praised the legislature for doing "some really amazing things."

So, which Wolf will Pennsylvania see in a second term?

Probably both. With maybe some emphasis on the latter.

Over the past week, I talked with legislative insiders in both parties, Wolf administration and campaign officials, business leaders and others.

I pledged not to use their names so they could speak openly, and not seem to project Wolf's reelection as a foregone conclusion (even though, c'mon, it pretty much was).

The consensus, with caveats about how shifts in the economy can change priorities, is that a Wolf second term will include his pushing "unfinished business." But possibly with an approach and attitude more like 2018 than in his early years in office.

"Governors like to leave a legacy," said one senior legislative aide. "He's shown he's liberal but malleable. And I think he's learned that you have more fun getting things done than fighting all the time."

Remember, Wolf worked with the legislature to enact some pension reform, some liquor reform, legalize medical marijuana, fight the opioid epidemic, and increase (though not nearly as much as he wanted) education funding. And he OK'd the legislature's expansion of casino gambling.

So maybe there's more common ground to plow. On workforce development, a business community priority. On cost savings by merging government agencies or functions, something conservatives like. Even, possibly, on a serious compromise shot at overall tax reform.

Still. Wolf's camp says the governor's "not planning to forget" issues he sees important to the future of the state.

That means ongoing stress on education funding. And more trips to the well of things he's tried and failed: Another run at a natural gas severance tax, another push to up the $7.25 minimum wage (as every neighboring state and every other Northeastern state except New Hampshire has done), and renewed arguments for campaign-finance reform.

These are things GOP leaders call "fighting issues." So, that means more Harrisburg tug of war.

Same with a planned administration effort to get partisan politics out of legislative-driven gerrymandering. Lawmakers don't like giving up power.

(Remember, we only did congressional gerrymandering, and only for now.)

Same with anything to do with gun control. You know how our legislature feels about guns.

And same, at least with the GOP Senate, regarding ongoing attempts supported by Wolf to extend statutes of limitations so victims of child sex abuse can have greater access to courts.

So, no matter Wolf's current niceness to lawmakers for the "amazing things" they do, there's still plenty to fight over.

But there's a large factor favoring Wolf, the legislature, and chances at a second term more peaceful than the first. And that, at least for now, is the national economy and the positive impact it's having on the state economy.

At the end of October, state General Fund revenue was up for the year by nearly a quarter billion dollars ($238 million) above projections.

If such growth continues, the next budget or two could be easy and battle-free. And mean that Wolf need not to go back to calling for higher taxes.