Long impasse overshadows start of his term; GOP cites lack of cooperation
January 20, 2016 12:14 AM
Gov. Tom Wolf greets supporters and cabinet members after being sworn into office inside the Governor's Reception Room at the Capitol in Harrisburg a year ago.
Gov. Tom Wolf addresses the thousands of supporters gathered for his Inaugural Celebration at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pa.
Gov. Tom Wolf, standing with his wife, Frances, is sworn into office by Judge Penny Blackwell at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Exactly a year ago, his hand on a mid-19th century family Bible, on another cold January day, Gov. Tom Wolf took the oath of office, pledging jobs that pay, schools that teach and a government that works.
Now, Mr. Wolf is mired in a months-long standoff with the Legislature, more than halfway through a fiscal year that started July 1 and still without a completed spending plan.
“This [year] was all about the budget. The fight over the budget made progress on other things very difficult,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat like Mr. Wolf. Mr. Rendell spent much of his first year in 2003 in a battle over education spending with the Legislature that ended with a tax hike.
Mr. Wolf’s administration does tout several first-year accomplishments: launching online voter registration that enabled more than 61,000 Pennsylvanians to register to vote or update their registration online; a gift ban for all political appointees and state workers under his jurisdiction and a number of moves to make his office more transparent; and the smooth transition from the previous administration’s short-lived Healthy PA program to the expansion of Medicaid as permitted under the Affordable Care Act, which has given health insurance to more than 500,000 people.
“There are over half a million Pennsylvanians who have health insurance who didn't have it before,” Mr. Wolf said.
But all of these were completed through executive actions of his administration alone, not through working with the Legislature.
“Despite an overwhelming majority in the Senate and the House of Republicans, I was able to accomplish some good things,” the governor said. Both the state House and Senate have large Republican majorities; 118 of 203 House members are Republican as are 30 of 50 senators.
“I’m trying to work as creatively as I can, to do the things that I can do, in the face of a Legislature that doesn't seem to want to do much with me,” Mr. Wolf said in a phone interview Tuesday with the Post-Gazette.
What’s been his biggest surprise since taking the job?
“Finding that things were actually as bad as we said they were,” Mr. Wolf said.
Republicans counter that Mr. Wolf has been difficult to work with. They say he has not lived up to the lofty talk of working together that he put forward in his campaign and also stressed during his inaugural address last January.
Mr. Wolf had pledged to be “a different kind of governor.”
“I would best describe the Wolf administration as at constant battle with itself,” said Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, the House majority leader. “It seems like you have policy-oriented folks constantly fighting with campaign folks as to who is controlling the governor's office.”
Mr. Reed pointed to television advertisements and campaign-style mailers attacking individual legislators by a group tied to the Democratic Governors Association as counterproductive when trying to strike deals with lawmakers.
“They never transitioned from the campaign to governing,” said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House GOP.
Mr. Wolf calls that assertion “nonsense. This is a democracy. And the people we report to are the citizens of Pennsylvania. The voters. So, yeah, I appeal to the voters and will continue to do that, and I believe the Republicans in the House and Senate have done the same thing.”
Historically speaking, a rocky first year for any governor is to be expected, said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. Govs. Milton Shapp, Robert Casey, Tom Ridge, Rendell and Tom Corbett “all had rough first years,” Mr. Madonna said. “All had job performance [polling] that dropped into their second year because of a rough first year.”
A poll Mr. Madonna released at the end of October showed one in three registered Pennsylvania voters believed Mr. Wolf was doing an “excellent” or “good” job as governor, an approval rating similar to Govs. Rendell and Corbett but lower than Mr. Ridge at this point in their first terms.
The only governor in modern history who didn't suffer a freshman year slump was Gov. Dick Thornburgh, largely due to his handling of the Three Mile Island Nuclear incident in 1979, Mr. Madonna said.
“Anytime you have a new governor, particularly a governor that comes from completely outside [state government], there’s a learning curve,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican. “And dealing with the Legislature, obviously dealing with the Legislature of the other party, makes it an even steeper learning curve, trying to figure out ways to get things done. Obviously, he has not been very successful. Not only do we not have a budget, he doesn’t really have any public policy victories...as far as any bills that got signed into law that he was championing.”
Mr. Corman added, “It’s a four-year term. We’ll see if we can move forward on some things together in the future.”
So what’s to come in the next year and beyond? In addition to continuing to work on a budget and fighting for the increased education funding he has wanted, Mr. Wolf said he’d like to see an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the passage of a medical marijuana bill that has passed the state Senate but stalled in the House, and the passage of a non-discrimination bill long-sought by LGBT activists. All of these would require passage by the Legislature.
“If you judge a governor by if she or he gets a budget done on time, I think that’s a fairly short-sighted goal,” Mr. Wolf said. “What if the budget isn’t any good?”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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