Three Predictions for Tom Wolf’s First Year

Is there any reason for optimism?

Tom Wolf

Tom Wolf takes office as governor of Pennsylvania today, and here’s the worry: That today — with the swearing-in, the pomp, the circumstance, and the Yuengling-free celebrations — might be the last good day of his term.

That’s probably an overwrought concern, but not by much. We’ve already discussed the reasons our new governor isn’t going to get much of a honeymoon — he’s staring down a gigantic deficit, and to fix it he needs the help of an ever-more-conservative Pennsylvania Legislature that might not be all that inclined to help him get anything done. It’s like trying to patch your ship in shark-infested waters, with the assistance of the sharks.

So how’s it all going to shake out? Three predictions for Tom Wolf’s first year in office:

• He’s going to disappoint a major constituency. In fact, the absence of Yuengling at the inaugural signals just how much Wolf doesn’t want to disappoint his major backers: Serving one of Pennsylvania’s signature beers at a big Pennsylvania party might seem a no-brainer, but Yuengling’s support of right-to-work laws put it afoul of unions, and that’s that.

Still, there’s the deficit: $2.33 billion. Astonishing. There’s no way to pretend it doesn’t exist, and the group of Republicans in Harrisburg isn’t going to raise taxes. We haven’t seen Wolf really tested yet — he cruised through the primary and general election campaigns — but it’s impossible to see a path forward in which he doesn’t end up cutting some important budget he doesn’t want to cut. We probably won’t see cuts to education, not directly anyway, since that issue carried him to victory. After that, though, the math is too tight to keep everybody happy.

 • The state liquor store system might finally be privatized. Yeah, yeah, I know: Even I think this is a crazy idea. Why it might work: Wolf will need to make a “grand bargain” on one of Pennsylvania’s big issues in order to keep any significant part of his agenda moving forward. And privatizing the liquor store system is the one he might judge least painful. 

Why? Well, again, the governor’s going to do everything he can to hold education harmless. And I don’t think he’s inclined to make his grand bargain on public sector pensions — the labor movement would desert him entirely if he did. It’s true the unions also want to keep the liquor stores in public hands; the unionized workforce of those stores seems to be the only true constituency against privatization. Wolf might sacrifice the stores in exchange for something big (say, education funding at closer to “full and equal” levels) and hope he can earn forgiveness from enough of the rest of the labor movement by the time the 2018 election rolls around.

 • After that, his administration will start to define victory down. Remember how Tom Corbett, by the end, was touting his ability to get state budgets approved and complete on time? Yeah, we’re about a year away from seeing that.

Yes, I’m a pessimist. I’d like to see the governor succeed, and I’d like to see much of his agenda guide Pennsylvania. But the problems are big, and all those Republicans in the legislature have a say, too. They’re not going to make it easy. And that’s going to make for a very frustrating four years for Tom Wolf — and his backers.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.