Gov. Tom Wolf, who introduced himself at his first inauguration as an unconventional governor and then unveiled an ambitious blueprint to transform Pennsylvania’s tax structure, is returning for a second term with big plans, although with perhaps a more sober view of what is possible.
Wolf, a Democrat, faced huge Republican legislative majorities throughout his first term, and will again face substantial Republican majorities as he hopes to nail down second-term achievements, including on stalled first-term priorities.
He is frank about his prospects for success in persuading lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, expand background checks on firearms purchases, overhaul how public schools are funded and impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production.
“I don’t know,” he said during a December interview in his Capitol offices with The Associated Press.
And while lawmakers wonder whether Wolf will float another bombshell, he is stressing the importance of getting things done.
“You can choose as to whether you want to focus on things where we disagree and where we are different and, I think in American politics right now, we’re doing too much of that,” Wolf said. “But here, we’ve said, ‘OK, and it might not be the biggest area in the world, but there are areas of overlap,’ and we have focused on that, and I think that’s how we’ve gotten things done.”
The mild-mannered Wolf talks now about fixing inequities in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, including stopping the widespread use of bail from leading to debtors’ prisons.
He is pressing counties to buy new voting machines ahead of the 2020 presidential election as a bulwark against foreign interference and he wants to make voting easier by allowing same-day registration and no-excuse absentee ballots.
He is stressing ethics and fairness in government as a way to improve the public’s trust, and he could be in a position to take major steps to curb Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Conventional political wisdom is that Wolf is freer to do what he wants, with fewer political consequences, since he is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
“He’s got a free ride,” said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana. “We all know what he did with his first budget, so what’s preventing him from going down that path? Nothing.”
Barely six weeks into his first term in 2015, Wolf proposed a multibillion-dollar tax increase in an effort to wipe out persistent post-recession deficits, corporate tax loopholes and disparities in public school funding.
An unprecedented nine-month budget stalemate followed, and little of what Wolf sought ever became law. He then changed tactics, emphasized bipartisanship and tried to restore decency to the Capitol’s corridors.
He has some wins: He pounded Republican challenger Scott Wagner in November’s election, getting nearly 58 percent of the vote with the help of a unified Democratic Party, its allies and a grassroots backlash to President Donald Trump.
Pennsylvania has a functioning medical marijuana program. The state’s uninsured rate dropped as Wolf aggressively defended Pennsylvania’s participation in the Affordable Care Act’s provisions.
Wolf has pronounced persistent deficits to be over and declared victory in his goal of restoring $1 billion in education aid cut under his predecessor. Still, Pennsylvania faces long-term fiscal headwinds, including a relatively slow-growing economy and a stagnant working-age population, and Wolf did not really achieve his goal of overhauling the state’s system of public-school funding.
Wolf forged a mixed relationship with lawmakers.
At times, Wolf avoided going through the Legislature to achieve his aims, such as a pending regulatory proposal to make hundreds of thousands of additional salaried employees eligible for overtime pay.
At other times the legislators agreed, including advancing legislation to combat opioid addiction. He grudgingly went along with an aggressive expansion of gambling to raise cash for a threadbare treasury and satiated some Republican thirst for changes to the state’s system of pension benefits and wine and liquor sales.
At times he allied with one chamber’s Republican leaders against the other chamber’s Republican leaders.
At other times, he stood his ground, vetoing 17 bills, including one aimed at narrowing abortion rights. He even sent $4 million in campaign cash to the state Democratic Party as it worked to defeat Republican lawmakers.
On Jan. 15, Wolf will deliver his second inaugural speech from a stage that will be erected behind the state Capitol.
“We saw two very different governors in his first four years,” said Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill. “And we’re wondering who just got re-elected and what the message will be to us in January.”