New Pennsylvania Governor Wolf expected to have to bend on agenda
HARRISBURG — Tax and spending issues could come between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf unless he fosters cooperation by learning to compromise, observers predict.
But most analysts aren’t forecasting gridlock in the Capitol after Wolf is sworn in Jan. 20 as the state’s 47th governor.
“The people of Pennsylvania are ready for a change,” said Wolf, a York businessman who spent part of Wednesday thanking supporters at a restaurant near his hometown of Mt. Wolf. “They are tired of the type of politics that are keeping Pennsylvania from achieving its full potential.”
Wolf won nearly 55 percent of the vote Tuesday — a historic victory that made Republican Tom Corbett of Shaler the first governor denied a second term since a 1968 constitutional change allowing them.
Corbett’s loss was balanced by Republican gains in the General Assembly. The party picked up three seats in the 50-member Senate, raising its total to 30, and increased its House majority from 111 to 119 among 203 members, the largest majority since the 1957-58 session.
Senate Republicans will set their agenda after electing leaders this month.
“Voters have given us, in the House and Senate, equal footing to address the Wolf agenda,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County.
Republicans can argue, “‘We were not repudiated, Corbett was repudiated,’” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.
Wolf has told reporters that “you’re just going to have to wait and see” what his agenda will look like and hasn’t said precisely how he would overhaul the tax structure, beyond shifting a bigger income tax burden to higher earners and potentially reducing the property tax.
Corbett, whose popularity never rebounded from his first budget’s dramatic cuts to public education, found it difficult to work with lawmakers, even in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Leaders did not push through his proposals to reform public employee pensions or privatize the state-run liquor stores, and Corbett acknowledged failing to clearly communicate his ideas.
Wolf’s style and personality could make the difference, several lawmakers and political analysts said.
“Corbett has not had the Legislature at the table,” said Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York, a Wolf supporter. “Corbett alienated the Legislature.”
David Chambers, a political science professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, sees Wolf as “a coalition-builder, and someone who comes in with a clear sense of what he wants to do, but a flexible sense of how to get there.”
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, in line to be speaker in 2015, said voters “clearly approved of our approach to move this commonwealth in the right direction. We have been fiscally and legislatively responsible. We have to be stewards of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, work to improve the business climate so we have family-sustaining jobs and a robust economy, and continue to bring integrity back to Harrisburg.”
Many Republicans are at odds with Wolf’s proposals to levy an extraction tax on natural gas companies and move to a progressive income tax to replace the flat 3.07 percent tax. The money, Wolf has said, could help to raise the state’s share of education funding from about one-third to 50 percent.
A 5 percent tax on shale-gas drillers has a better shot of getting approved by the Senate than the House, analysts said.
A budget deficit next year of as much as $2 billion awaits the state next year, Scarnati pointed out.
The impact fee on gas drilling is tantamount to a 3 percent tax, Turzai said. It provides money to local governments that might need to pay for roads damaged by heavy equipment, for example, and to state environmental programs.
Wolf has said his plan could help fund education and cover programs paid with the impact fee revenue. But Scarnati, who authored the impact fee law, said it’s wrong to suggest “you can put a shale tax on an impact fee and solve the problems of the world.”
Chambers believes Wolf will find GOP allies in his push to boost education funding. Republicans reduced some proposed education cuts in Corbett’s first two budgets.
Wolf’s victory “puts Republicans on notice we expect something from our governor,” said Carole Norbeck of Lewisberry in York County, a Wolf supporter who attended his election night celebration. “Hopefully, we’ll have much better schools in the future.”
Norbeck’s daughter, a teacher, twice was furloughed during Corbett’s tenure, she said.
Wolf has said he successfully worked with lawmakers during his 19 months as Department of Revenue secretary under then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Philadelphia Democrat.
Rendell, governor from 2002 through 2010, often worked with Republican legislative majorities. Compromise helped him pass legislation related to his campaign promises, he told the Tribune-Review.
“Of all those promises, I don’t think I got 100 percent of what I wanted on any of them, but I think I got somewhere between 50 and 85 percent,” Rendell said. “Tom’s going to have to learn to compromise. He’s going to have to learn when to fight, when to meet them halfway.”
Brad Bumsted and Melissa Daniels are Trib Total Media staff writers.