Tom Wolf’s Honeymoon is Over

Just a week past election, it's already time to lower expectations.

Tom Wolf

Photo | Jeff Fusco

We’re barely a week past the election, and already it looks — sorry to say — like the honeymoon is over for Governor-elect Tom Wolf.

The first clue, assuming you want to skip past the fact that he was already going to be dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature, was when the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans dumped good ol’ Dom Pileggi as their leader this week and replaced him with the fierier, more conservative Jake Corman.

That would be enough, on its own, to make the state’s Democrats a little sick to their stomachs — worse yet is that Comran probably owes his ascendancy, in part, to Wolf’s election. “We don’t want a moderate majority leader who’s going to allow Wolf to get things done that are contrary to the overwhelming majority of our caucus,” an unnamed caucus member told The Patriot News.

So: Goodbye to any easy solutions on the Philly education front. Goodbye, most likely, to a bipartisan fracking tax. And goodbye, really, to any era of good feelings that might get the Wolf Administration off to an auspicious beginning.

That was just the start.

The second shoe dropped on Thursday, when the state’s Independent Fiscal Office released a report projecting the state faces a $171 million fiscal imbalance during the 2014-15 fiscal year — and that it should grow to $2.5 billion over the next five years.

Let’s call that the legacy of four years of unimpeded Republican control of Harrisburg — the GOP doesn’t really have anybody else to blame this problem on, particularly since lots of folks saw it coming long ago.

For Wolf’s purposes, the blame doesn’t really matter. He has to live in the fiscal world as it is, not as he wishes it would be. His transition team quickly released a statement following the IFO report:

“Today’s report showing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit is a stark reminder of the dire fiscal situation my administration will face. As bad as today’s news is, what lies ahead could be worse. It is critical that we understand the full extent of this budget crisis so that we can address our challenges in a responsible manner.”

Shorter message: Lower. Your. Expectations.

It may be, as a Democratic spokesman said the other day, that Wolf “was elected to fix this mess.” The fact now is that the mess is huge, and the partners in fixing it much less congenial to Wolf than expected.

So what can voters reasonably expect of Wolf in this situation?

Well, they should expect that Republicans will be largely intransigent on the issue of taxes — Tom Corbett lost a lot of intraparty support because of the gas taxes that help fund the state’s new (and needed) transportation bills — so Wolf might have no choice but to do more cutting than growing of many government services. But Wolf will have to remember that Corbett lost his job, in part, over voter anger about school funding; he’ll have to work as hard as possible to shield the education budget in the coming budget battles.

Democrats should probably prepare themselves for the possibility that, in order to preserve ed funding, Wolf decides to make a grand bargain on public employee pensions that his predecessor never could get. Under the IFO’s current scenario, state expenditures are expected to grow 4.1 percent annually over the next five years — without pension contributions, that number would be 3.3 percent. If every other element of state government is being starved for resources, that’ll make pensions a fat, fat target.*

*That may not be entirely fair, but that’s a topic for another column.

In return, though voters should expect that Wolf be a tough negotiator: Republicans, after all, want school funding reform too — mostly so they can bring down local property taxes in the rest of the state. He can’t let them have that without getting something in return. That something should be full and fair funding of education overall.

We’re a far cry from the hopeful days of expecting to pass a fracking tax, fund education with the revenues, and everybody living happily ever after. Maybe that dream was never realistic anyway. It’s certainly not anymore. Politics is the art of the possible. We’re about to find out how much art Tom Wolf has in him.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.