Tom Wolf Defends His Choices in Pennsylvania Budget Standoff

A growing narrative suggests he can't compromise. The governor pushes back.
 Gov. Tom Wolf arrives for a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, at the Southport Marine Terminal Complex in Philadelphia.

Gov. Tom Wolf arrives for a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, at the Southport Marine Terminal Complex in Philadelphia.

Tom Wolf wants you to know he’s not overly stubborn. He wants you to know he’s fighting for the right things. He wants you to know that he can, in fact, govern the state of Pennsylvania.

Or, at least, he wants me to know.

You might remember that about three weeks ago, I wrote a column with the headline, “No, Tom Wolf Can’t Govern Pennsylvania.” I basically argued that the state’s budget standoff had gone on too long, and that it was time for the governor to make some compromises, accept a “half a loaf” victory, get a budget passed, and move on.

The column wasn’t greeted well in Harrisburg. I got a call from the governor’s spokesman about an hour after it published at PhillyMag.com, and he gave me an earful. And that, I figured, was probably that. 

Until Wednesday, that is. That’s when Gov. Wolf called me up for a short chat. It was cordial but pointed: My three-week-old column was still sticking in his craw. His basic message was a familiar one though: He has made compromises — and he needs the GOP-controlled Legislature to do the same in order to finally get a budget passed, months after mid-summer deadline for doing so.

“We have a divided government,” Wolf told me. “I’ve made huge compromises, and now I’m waiting for them.”

Funny thing is, Republicans say much the same thing about Wolf. And it’s possible both sides think they’re right about this.

Republicans, for example, point out they offered in August (remember August?) to increase education funding by $400 million — what Wolf asked for in his original budget proposal, and probably the biggest issue he campaigned on last year They did, however, ask in exchange that Wolf approve a state pension reform plan that looks like one Wolf vetoed back in June. (Remember June?)

Wolf counters that he’s offered compromises of his own. He’s offered his own pension reform proposal. He’s offered a partial privatization of the state liquor store system. He’s even altered the details of his proposed tax on the Marcellus Shale to try to win more Republican support.

“I’m making compromises, despite what you thought,” he told me Wednesday.

One area where compromise seemingly cannot be found, however, is on the topic of taxes. Wolf says money is needed to pay for state services, as well as to plug the $2 billion budget deficit his predecessor needed. But the Legislature has repeatedly voted down his tax proposals over the last few months — most recently in early October. And it wasn’t a party line thing: Some Democrats crossed the aisle to join Republicans in opposing the tax plan. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat, even says this budget probably won’t include personal or sales tax increases.

But Wolf says Pennsylvania can’t cut its way to a balanced budget: “I don’t know how you can get $2 billion out by next June.” And he hesitates to call his plan a tax “increase,” instead at one point labeling it a “redistribution” — because it would be accompanied by property tax relief — and at another point calling it “an above-board acknowledgement” that the state’s revenues must match its expenditures.

“It’s not really an increase,” he said. Republicans surely disagree, however.

I doubt the governor would’ve paid me much attention, honestly, except there’s growing evidence that he’s under pressure to make a deal: The stories about schools and social service agencies being squeezed while they wait for a budget are growing more numerous; several recent polls show his popularity has fallen. And several other columnists — like PennLive’s John Micek and the Daily News’ John Baer — have also suggested that Wolf doesn’t show much aptitude for compromise. The narrative is gathering steam.

“Wolf owns this,” Baer wrote. “So, here’s the choice: Continue to regard the Legislature as largely an ugly underworld where mostly demons dwell, or recognize realities required to reach a budget agreement.” If Wolf wants more, Baer suggested, he’s going to have to give more.

Indeed. The question I raised at the outset is still an open one: Can Tom Wolf govern the state? Listen: I favor the big strokes of Wolf’s agenda, like increased ed funding and a tax on the Marcellus Shale. The art of governing, however, involves eventually getting to “yes” on important matters — if not by deadline, than at least in reasonably timely fashion. Sure, Republicans are stubborn, even wrong on lots of stuff. The governor is elected to be the grownup in the room. The budget was due in June. It’s almost Thanksgiving.

Wolf has clearly concluded, so far, that the cost of “yes” is too high. But he told me he believes an agreement is near. And he said Republican concessions on things like education funding might not’ve happened had he simply rubber-stamped a budget back in June.

“I think I was right to say, ‘That’s not good enough,'” he said. The ultimate budget, he says, will be one in which “both sides say ‘That is not exactly what I wanted’ but moves Pennsylvania forward.”

He sounded sanguine about the way the process had progressed. These things sometimes take time, Wolf suggested.

“This is the way negotiations are supposed to go,” he said, “even if they take a little bit longer.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.