Gov. Tom Wolf reflects on eight years of successes, stumbles and standoffs
‘I’ve stuck to my principles on … protecting women’s [reproductive] rights, the LGBTQ community, on guns … I’m proud of those things,’ Wolf said
Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his final budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/8/22 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).
Looking back over his eight years in office, Gov. Tom Wolf said he hopes he will be remembered for making Pennsylvania a better place and for doing it honestly and efficiently.
Wolf took office in 2015, defeating the unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett after a campaign where he spent $10 million of his own money. Wolf inherited a state government reeling from deep cuts and without a rainy day fund.
In two terms marked by deepening partisanship, legislative impasses, veto battles, and a pandemic that often put him in the crosshairs of Republican critics, Wolf told the Capital-Star earlier this month that he nonetheless accomplished many of his goals.
But he acknowledged that without Democratic control of the General Assembly during his tenure, he fell short on a number of important goals.
Wolf will leave office in January, handing the reins to Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s elected attorney general, marking the first time since 1958 that voters have elected back-to-back Democratic governors.
“Maybe if the General Assembly were a little more sympathetic, we could have gotten things done that would have made lives better,” Wolf said during an interview earlier this month in his office at the state Capitol.
Wolf, 74, of York County, said he’s looking forward to an “uncomplicated retirement” of reading, eating, sleeping and spending time with his grandchildren. But aside from a lecture next year at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wolf said he has no plans to relive his time as governor on the speaking circuit.
Wolf presided over the executive branch of Pennsylvania’s government during a tumultuous period in national history.
Without a playbook or even a clear understanding of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Wolf said he and other Pennsylvania officials were largely on their own in determining the state’s response to the pandemic.
I will be second guessing myself till the day I die, wondering whether I could have done something better or not
– Gov. Tom Wolf
From masking mandates and business closures to the state’s management of outbreaks in nursing homes, Wolf and his administration weathered attacks from Republican lawmakers who said the pandemic response was an unlawful restraint on Pennsylvania residents’ freedom.
“I will be second guessing myself till the day I die, wondering whether I could have done something better or not,” Wolf said.
Wolf said his goal during the first uncertain months of the pandemic was to keep people safe and keep the state’s health care system from becoming overwhelmed.
“There were no instructions. And so if someone were to say things were not clear, [I] absolutely agree 100 percent,” Wolf said. “… I was consistent in looking at what the public health folks were saying to do. I wasn’t playing politics.”
But amid the historic events that unfurled through Wolf’s administration, Wolf said he’s proud of the work he did to make state government more transparent, invest in education and create jobs.
“At a bare minimum, the integrity and honesty has been something that’s been really important,” Wolf said.
Republicans in the General Assembly, aggrieved by the administration’s pandemic policies, and who did not share Wolf’s assessment of his performance, successfully pushed through a constitutional amendment limiting Wolf’s emergency powers, and those of his successors. Voters approved it during a statewide referendum in 2021.
Wolf said his first official act after his inauguration was to issue an executive order banning members of his administration from accepting gifts or favors from people doing business with or for the state or lawyers involved in proceedings before or against a commonwealth agency.
On his first inauguration day, Wolf also signed an executive order requiring contracts with outside legal firms to be competitively bid.
“One of the the issues I heard a lot about in the campaign was on … state contracting, that it was sort of like a closed group of people who were qualified to bid, and what it was, basically … was an exclusionary thing,” Wolf said.
Wolf did a study to find out how equitable the state bidding process was and created a new deputy secretary position under the Department of General Services to track contracts.
According to Wolf’s office, the state spent $955 million with small, diverse and veteran-owned businesses in 2021, a 169 percent increase since 2015. In the first seven years of Wolf’s administration, the state awarded $4.5 billion to such businesses.
Wolf also touted record investment in public education, with most new spending distributed through the state’s fair funding formula.
This year’s budget increased public school funding by nearly $1 billion, including basic education, special education, “level up” funding for the 100 poorest school districts, and $100 million in one-time grants for school security and mental health programs.
One of Wolf’s earliest frustrations, however, centered on school funding.
The Democratic governor’s first budget in 2015 proposed a new severance tax on oil and gas drillers to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding cut by Corbett. He also proposed increases in the personal income tax and sales tax to shift part of the burden of school funding from homeowners to the state, which would then distribute more of the money to school districts with lower tax bases to compensate for funding disparities.
Wolf said he envisioned the tax plan as a way to immediately boost school funding.
“If you’re a first grader, I don’t want you to have to wait till you’re in eighth grade to actually have the resources or your teachers having the resources they ought to have,” Wolf said. “Let’s put a temporary tax in place so that we can start right now and say we’re going to adequately fund our education system from the get-go. Obviously, I wasn’t able to do that.”
Eventually, as revenue improved, Wolf was able to come close to his goal of $4 billion in new education funding.
“We came close to that but I still think Pennsylvania missed out on something by not doing it right from the start,” he said.
Wolf said he never gave up on enacting a severance tax, including it in an ambitious infrastructure package known as Restore PA. But he was never able to win legislative authorization for it.
Among the public policy initiatives Wolf counts among his victories are economic development efforts that have grown the number of jobs available in Pennsylvania, and criminal justice reform that reduced the state prison population to its smallest in nearly 20 years and allowed the Department of Corrections to close two state prisons.
Wolf said he’s defended human rights, the environment and blocked the loosening of gun safety measures by vetoing 66 bills, more than any governor since Milton Shapp, who held office from 1971 to 1979.
“I’ve stuck to my principles on … protecting women’s [reproductive] rights, the LGBTQ community, on guns and things that I have very strong, strong values. So I’ve stood up for that. So I’m proud of those things,” Wolf said.
Among the vetoes were Republican-backed abortion bills that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks and created legal jeopardy for doctors who performed abortions after an in-utero diagnosis of Down syndrome and barred doctors from prescribing drugs that would induce abortions.
Wolf, a one-time Planned Parenthood volunteer, said that he promised on the campaign trail to protect reproductive rights and appreciates being the backstop against such legislation, but said the strategy needs to change. American democracy will not survive if half of the population doesn’t have the rights the other half does, Wolf said.
“It’s an issue that affects all Americans and I and I think we need to stop counting on that random luck that you have a sympathetic governor in that chair and have legislation or a constitutional amendment that says no, this is something that women have an inherent right to, [a] constitutional right to,” Wolf said.
Shapiro also supports the right to access abortion care and has similarly vowed to reject restrictive efforts from the Legislature to ban or limit the procedure.
‘The way things work’
Wolf’s first year as governor was dominated by a 10-month budget impasse that stretched into April of the following year, when spending bills passed by veto-proof majorities became law without Wolf’s signature.
As he prepared his first budget in 2015, Wolf’s advisors questioned whether he wanted to go “whole hog” on his initiatives.
“They were saying, ‘Here’s what you could probably get,’” Wolf said.
Wolf put forth a budget proposal that reflected what he had campaigned on, but without a friendly majority in either chamber, the General Assembly’s response bore little resemblance to his spending plan.
“I think they basically wanted to make sure I understood that. That’s not the way things work,” Wolf said.
That year Wolf also shot down Republican-backed bills to privatize the state-run liquor system and to reduce pension benefits for future school employees and most other state workers.
But then Wolf and Republican lawmakers started talking, Wolf said.
If you look back over the last eight years, it looks like … we were a pretty functional democracy here
– Gov. Tom Wolf
“Ironically, I think the first thing where we started reaching across the aisles was medical marijuana … which I supported but there were some very conservative Republicans who did too and so we said, ‘You know, maybe we can work together,’” Wolf said.
The dialogue between lawmakers and the governor’s office led to agreements on pension and liquor reforms.
“I didn’t agree with liquor privatization. But I did agree that, you know, we probably ought to have wine and beer in there where you buy your groceries,” Wolf said.
That led to a process where Wolf and his people looked for areas where what they wanted and what the GOP-controlled Legislature wanted overlapped.
“We still poke each other in the eye from time to time but I think we got a lot done as a result. If you look back over the last eight years, it looks like … we were a pretty functional democracy here,” Wolf said.
Goals out of reach
Despite learning to get things done with the GOP-controlled General Assembly, there are goals that Wolf said he regrets not being able to achieve.
With the second-highest gasoline tax in the country, Pennsylvania struggles to pay for its roads and bridges. Even with federal highway funding, the state is responsible to match 20 percent of most projects’ costs.
Pennsylvania has denied itself billions of dollars that could have gone into roads and bridges and flood control or schools or whatever. But we didn't and I think that was a mistake
– Gov. Tom Wolf
Wolf said he’s pitched a number of ideas in Harrisburg and Washington, but has not been able to convince lawmakers that an alternative to shrinking gas tax revenues is needed.
“Cars and trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient,” Wolf said. Many new cars and trucks aren’t even using fossil fuels. So to base your infrastructure funding on something that is on its way out doesn’t make any sense, so my big frustration is we haven’t done that,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s push for a severance tax on oil and gas was at the center of one proposal. The tax was to be the engine powering his Restore PA infrastructure plan to invest $4.5 billion in transportation, broadband internet access, brownfield remediation and a number of other issues aimed at allowing Pennsylvania to advance its economy.
Republicans balked at the proposal to borrow the money and pay it back with severance tax revenue over the next 20 years.
“Every other state with natural gas has a severance tax and Pennsylvania has denied itself billions of dollars that could have gone into roads and bridges and flood control or schools or whatever. But we didn’t and I think that was a mistake,” Wolf said.
Wolf also said he’s disappointed the General Assembly didn’t support his proposals to help Pennsylvania workers in times of record inflation. Wolf wanted to raise Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage, with an eye toward eventually boosting it to $15 an hour.
Amid inflation and staffing shortages, is now the time for Pa.’s minimum wage to increase?
“It’s the lowest in our neighborhood,” Wolf said, referring to minimum wages in bordering states that range from $8.70 to $11.80 an hour. “That’s unfinished business.”
In addition to backlash from business owners and workers who saw their livelihoods suspended in the early days of the pandemic, Wolf said he received calls from federal officials asking for exceptions for certain businesses to remain in operation.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we just try to do a waiver program and give companies … a chance to appeal … if they don’t think they ought to be on that list,” Wolf said.
Wolf admits there were flaws in the waiver program, “but we stood it up in a couple of weeks and did the best we could.”
“I think that the idea was right. Yeah, I think it’s fair to say we could have done a lot better than we did. But we got it up and running pretty quickly and tried,” Wolf said.
But where the state was unprepared for the pandemic, Wolf said he and other officials used the struggle to secure facemasks and other protective equipment, for example, as opportunities to learn for the future.
“We now have a warehouse full of personal protective equipment. We’re learning how to make sure we recycle it so that it stays fresh, so the test stuff stays refrigerated,” Wolf said.
Wolf said that the continuous efforts to figure out how to make government work better were among the most helpful things during his administration and it’s advice Wolf said he has passed to Shapiro.
“We would do tabletop exercises where we’d make up a disaster. How do we respond to the thing – all the cabinet together at the [Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency] building and discuss it? And usually what we found is we were completely unprepared,” Wolf said.
Wolf said he has worked to integrate what he calls the learning organization theory into every area of his administration.
That has included testing public-facing operations himself to see if they work and empowering frontline workers to identify fixes needed when they spot problems or unusual cases that aren’t accounted for.
“It’s got to start from the top. You’ve got to make that a priority because we’ve got to keep trying to make this government work better for the people it serves,” Wolf said.
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