No, Tom Wolf Can’t Govern Pennsylvania

“I can’t cave,” the governor says. That’s the problem.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf's hopes of ending Pennsylvania's 99-day-old state budget impasse were dashed Wednesday when nine of his fellow Democrats joined all House Republicans to vote against his revised plan to raise billions in income and gas drilling taxes.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

A year ago today, as Tom Wolf’s never-in-doubt campaign to unseat Gov. Tom Corbett wound down to its final weeks, I asked a simple question about what would happen after the election: Could Wolf actually govern the state of Pennsylvania?

It wasn’t a mean-spirited question, just a problem of math: Even with overwhelming support getting into office, Wolf — a Democrat, remember — was likely to face an overwhelmingly Republican legislature. Governing is hard. Governing when your rivals control one of the other branches of government? Not impossible, exactly, but excruciatingly difficult.

A year later, we seem to have an answer to the question: No, Tom Wolf is not a very good governor. At least, not yet.

What he is is stubborn. And that may score him points with his political base — nobody who is deeply invested in politics likes compromise — but it’s not serving the citizens of the commonwealth all that well.

Need an example? Just look at today’s news: Even though his tax hike proposals have been rejected by the legislature, and even though the state budget is more than 100 days late — even Ed Rendell was timelier — Wolf’s inclination is not to budge one inch.

“I think there’s a dawning awareness that I’m not going to cave on this,” Wolf told a Pittsburgh radio station today. “I can’t cave on this.”

Here’s the problem, though: Wolf hasn’t been asked to cave. He campaigned on a promise to restore education funding and to pay for it using a new tax on the Marcellus Shale. In August, Republicans offered a deal where they’d approve $400 million in new education funding and the taxes to pay for it — as long as Wolf signed off on a pension reform package for state employees he’d previously vetoed.

It would’ve given Wolf a major victory on a signature issue, but it would’ve required compromising on one of two issues — pensions being one, liquor privatization being the other — that everybody knows he’ll have to compromise on to get any part of his agenda passed. Two months later there’s still no deal.

All of this led to Governing magazine choosing this month to give Wolf a mixed rating for his governorship: “Observers say he could secure new education money using proceeds from a natural gas severance tax and an increase in the personal income tax, in exchange for such Republican priorities as a state employee pension overhaul and a green light for grocery stores to sell beer and wine,” the magazine says. “But agreeing to such a deal would draw fire from public employee and other labor unions, and so far Wolf hasn’t pulled the trigger.”

Here’s how bad it’s gotten: Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are now talking about having budget talks only with each other: Under this scenario, Wolf would be cut out of the budget process entirely. Sidelined.

What does that tell you, that such a measure is being considered?

Wolf’s stubbornness has long been manifest, ranging from his inaugural decision not to serve Yuengling beer to his decision to stick by his (failed) nominee for state police commissioner long past the point of political viability. Wolf came to the governorship from business, remember: He’s used to giving orders, not to negotiating with rivals. It shows.

There’s something admirable about Wolf’s professed desire not to kick the can down the road, to wait until he can get a deal that fixes all the problems — a $2 billion deficit included — facing the state of Pennsylvania. But politics is the art of the possible, and the big fixes Wolf seeks aren’t available to him right now, at least not on his terms. Better to grab the smaller opportunities available now, declare victory, and fight another day. Sometimes you take half a loaf.

The alternative? Risk utter ineffectuality.

Wolf, remember, made a big deal about Corbett’s inability to get stuff done. It was part of the rationale for making Corbett the only single-term Pennyslvania governor during the modern era.  

“You weren’t able to work with your own party’s members in the Legislature,” Wolf sniffed at Corbett during a debate. “I certainly will do no worse than that.”

He hasn’t done any better. But there’s still time to make a change.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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