Even before Pa. budget speech, Wolf sets tone in Harrisburg

     Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference  in Philadelphia. He'll deliver his first Pennsylvania budget address Tuesday in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia. He'll deliver his first Pennsylvania budget address Tuesday in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    The governor’s budget address is usually the opening salvo of a policy battle that tends to last at least until the end of June. Governor Tom Wolf apparently didn’t get the memo

    The governor’s budget address is usually the opening salvo of a policy battle that tends to last at least until the end of June. Governor Tom Wolf apparently didn’t get the memo — in his first several weeks in office, he’s already fired several shots across the bow.

    “Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt, if you go back,” said Franklin & Marshall pollster Terry Madonna. “Other governors waited until their budget message was delivered and then promoted pieces of it, parts of it.”

    Instead, Wolf has already announced his intentions to propose a tax on natural gas drillers and an overhaul of the corporate tax structure. He has met with advocates for greater LGBT protections and medical marijuana to underscore his support for their causes.

    But Wolf has also started to implement his agenda. He halted new drilling in state lands, began the full expansion of Medicaid, and imposed a moratorium on the state’s death penalty, at least until a state panel finishes studying it. Upon his inauguration, Wolf banned his administration from accepting gifts, no matter how small.

    “That’s quite an activist role, and I think it’s setting the tone for what his governorship is going to be like,” Madonna said.

    In between announcements and orders, Wolf has walked the halls of the Capitol, dropping in on lawmakers to say hello. He’s had many of them at the governor’s residence for what his staff calls “listening sessions.”

    Democrat Jay Costa, the Senate minority leader, said Wolf’s visibility among lawmakers from both parties could make negotiations down the road more fruitful.

    “He’ll bring 10 or 12 members from a region in, and they’ll have dinner and discuss issues, and it’s more social than it is issue-oriented,” said Costa. “He’s in a situation where he has to depend on relationships with Democrats and Republicans, and this is the best way to do that.”

    GOP not convinced

    But the charm offensive has left some Republicans feeling just plain offended. Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate GOP, said leaders have been blindsided by many of Wolf’s moves, despite the added face-time.

    “The drive-bys have been nice on appearance, but as far as being anything meaningful, there’s been a little bit of … some skepticism now connected with the meetings,” said Kocher. “The common courtesy of sharing information would be appreciated.”

    Republicans soured when the governor fired the director of the state’s Office of Open Records, appointed by Tom Corbett, and in the same fell swoop rescinded more than two dozen other Corbett nominations.

    Wolf and the GOP have since struck a deal to allow about a dozen of the Corbett nominations to go forward. The Open Records dispute will go before a panel of state judges next week. It’s not the only legal challenge Wolf is facing.

    The governor is being sued over his efforts to suspend the death penalty. He’s been put on notice that another lawsuit is coming over his recent move to replace the chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

    Wolf has said many of his most controversial moves stem from promises he made while running for office.

    “I’m not sure why the criticism,” said Wolf. “I have done things that I said I was going to do in my campaign, and I’ve done them according to the rules of the constitution.”

    The governor grins, gamely, when asked if he’s bracing for howls of opposition from Republicans over a budget proposal that’s expected to call for significantly more state spending.

    “There might be — and that’s life,” said Wolf. “And we’ll all try to figure out how we’ll overcome those differences.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.