Wolf’s big ideas – a history lesson

    Give Tom Wolf credit – he’s not thinking small.Undaunted by a yawning budget deficit and a legislature run by men ready to take him apart, Pennsylvania’s new Democratic governor has apparently decided he’ll be asking for big changes in his first budget address tomorrow..If the early reporting is accurate, Wolf plans to try to do a lot of things at once: fund schools, make the tax system fairer, and give companies incentives to create more jobs.To do that, he reportedly wants to impose a new tax (on shale gas) and move the rates of a bunch of others – the corporate profits tax drops dramatically as loopholes disappear; state income and sales taxes rise; and local property taxes fall across the Commonwealth, except in Philadelphia, where wage tax relief is the game.If you’re going to do something big and bold, he probably reasons, there’s no better time than after you’ve just won a big election and before you start taking the bruises that come with holding executive office.And in theory, if you’ve crafted a plan that solves a bunch of problems, you should have support from all the constituencies that stand to benefit.Maybe. But I have to say I’ve seen it work exactly the opposite way before.

    Big thinking from the past

    Back in 1987, Gov. Bob Casey (father of the current senator) proposed a big tax reform package with a lot of moving parts. It was going do away with a bunch of nuisance taxes and let cities and towns move away from such a heavy dependence on property taxes and levy wage and income taxes if they chose.After a tough battle, Casey got the legislature to put the plan before voters. A statewide referendum was needed because the plan required changes to the state constitution.In 1994, a blue ribbon commission in Philadelphia proposed a comprehensive set of changes to the city charter, designed to modernize the city’s governing blueprint and make government more honest and efficient. At least that’s how the commission saw it.

    The panel crafting the changes was chaired by then-City Council President John Street, and was heartily endorsed popular mayor Ed Rendell and the city’s leading civic group, the Committee of Seventy.This also required the approval of voters in a referendum.

    Voters go south

    Despite determined campaigns to sell the Casey tax reform package and the Philadelphia charter change to voters, both proposals went down by margins reminiscent of lop-sided Super Bowls.What happened?As I noted, both proposals had lots of moving parts, which, their backers said, worked together to solve many problems.But there are always people and interest groups who stand to lose from change, and since both packages had to be approved by legislators months before the referenda, they stood out there as big targets for months, while dozens of interest groups to figured out what they didn’t like and organized to fight.And, of course, there’s the general principle that while we all love to complain about the way things are, change itself is unsettling.In the case of the Philadelphia charter change, the opponents included disparate groups that never thought they’d find common ground. Picture liberal consumer activists and Fraternal Order of Police leaders hugging each other on election night.

    Can Wolf Do it?

    I don’t mean to say Wolf can’t pull this off.Big, complicated changes do happen sometimes – witness the Affordable Care Act. It does seem they’re more likely to happen if they don’t go before voters.Members of Congress and legislatures can hammer out an agreement under pressure, and if Wolf’s proposals don’t require any changes to the state constitution he has a better chance than if they do.But it will require some serious political skill, and we’ll soon see if he has the team and the game to pull it off.And I’ll be fascinated to see what happens if it begins to look like Wolf can get much of what he wants if he’ll agree to some form of liquor privatization.One thing’s for sure: it won’t be a boring spring for my reporter friends in Harrisburg.

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