Dem Wolf eyes shale’s ‘golden egg’ to boost school funding
Tom Wolf, the Democrat who could become Pennsylvania’s next governor, wants to invest more in public education and transportation infrastructure.
But to see those plans through, his administration would require hundreds of millions of dollars from taxes on Marcellus shale and potentially from an increase in Pennsylvania personal income taxes.
Wolf, 65, a York County businessman and former state Department of Revenue secretary, told Tribune-Review reporters and editors on Tuesday that his legislative priorities are a severance tax on natural gas, a progressive approach to income taxes, connecting Pennsylvania regions through better infrastructure and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to receive federal dollars.
“I don’t want to keep the seat warm; I actually want to get something done,” Wolf said. “I’m actually doing this because I want to fix things.”
A first-time candidate, Wolf spent millions of his money to win a primary race to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett, a first-term Republican who has been unable to shepherd some of his main agenda items through a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Wolf contrasted Corbett’s leadership with his experience running the Wolf Organization, a family-owned kitchen cabinet design and production firm. He was revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell.
In politics, Wolf, by his own admission, is “new at this.”
He acknowledged gaps in his knowledge on specific issues and said he has no answers on proposals to expand online gaming, eliminate legislators’ per diems or the state’s pollution reduction plan under a directive from the Environmental Protection Agency.
On public-sector pensions — which Corbett calls a state budget crisis at $47 billion in unfunded liability — Wolf said the problem dates back about 14 years but won’t reach crisis stage unless lawmakers continue to “kick the can down the road.” He said he would work with the Legislature on ways to meet the state’s obligations.
Billy Pitman, Corbett’s campaign spokesman, said Wolf “denies” a pension crisis and his approach will take more money out of the pockets of families and business owners.
“Tom Wolf’s only answer seems to be, ‘Let’s raise taxes on whatever we can,’ ” Pitman said.
Wolf won the nomination in a 67-county sweep in the four-way May primary. He put $10 million of his money into the race and bought television advertisements early and often. He leads Corbett by 18.6 percentage points, according to the latest average of polls calculated by Real Clear Politics.
The most recent fundraising totals filed with the Department of State show Corbett had $4.8 million as of June 9. Wolf had $3.1 million. The next reports are due Sept. 23.
Should Wolf take the governor’s mansion, he likely faces the prospect of working with a Republican-controlled Legislature to achieve his progressive agenda. Wolf said he would lay out a vision and try to persuade enough legislators to support it.
“I’m not trying to move pieces around a sinking ship, I’m actually trying to make the ship sail better,” he said. “I have to convince people of that.”
Throughout the race, Wolf has said his priority is boosting school funding, the top-rated issue among voters.
Education, he said, is a “public, not a private, good.” He criticized the Corbett administration’s decision not to backfill an expiration of $1 billion in federal stimulus funds for education in the 2011 budget.
“I think part of the challenge of solving the education problem is making sure we’re adequately and fairly funding it,” Wolf said.
He proposes putting more state dollars toward public schools to decrease the property tax burden, using a 5 percent shale-gas tax revenue and an increase in personal income tax. His income tax plan would provide for an exemption up to a yet-to-be-determined dollar figure and apply a new flat rate for a progressive-taxation approach.
Shale gas, Wolf said, is the goose that “lays the golden egg” for the state. His proposed severance tax could yield hundreds of millions of dollars, based on market prices and how the tax is structured, Wolf said.
Industry warns against the proposal. North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said tax burdens could get in the way of businesses, jobs and economic gains generated by natural gas drilling.
“To be clear, new energy taxes will make Pennsylvania less competitive,” Spigelmyer said. “While shale development will remain here, the industry’s growth potential — and the broad-based associated benefits that could be fully realized — will be unnecessarily jeopardized.”
In that area, too, Wolf said he sees himself using negotiation to achieve his plans. Government, he said, can be an enabler to the industry.
“My message is, your industry could be a game-changer for Pennsylvania’s economy,” Wolf said. “Let’s see how we could make this work.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or [email protected]. Staff writer David Conti contributed.