Let us now praise Tom Wolf, the political scientist who did good | Fletcher McClellan
The outgoing Democratic governor reestablished politics in Pennsylvania as the art of the possible
Gov. Tom Wolf holds a press conference to sign an executive order discouraging conversion therapy in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Commonwealth Media Services)
Gov. Tom Wolf’s time in office is ending and, unlike some Pennsylvania politicians, he is going out on a high note.
Wolf will return to York County with the commonwealth’s finances in good shape, record low unemployment, huge investments in public education, and an absence of scandal. Despite often bitter relations with the Republican-controlled legislature throughout his tenure, Wolf won re-election convincingly and helped the Democrats win a third consecutive term in 2022.
Though Wolf had served in the cabinet of former Gov. Ed Rendell, he campaigned for governor as a businessman, outsider and non-politician. Between elections, he assumed an anti-Harrisburg stance when it suited him.
At the same time, as the academic Wolf once was (he holds a doctoral degree from MIT in political science), the governor attempted to reason with legislative leaders from both parties. After a tough start to his governorship, he learned how to play hardball to get what he wanted.
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Wolf’s relations with state government stakeholders and the public proceeded in distinct phases:
- Confrontation: At the start of his administration in early 2015, Wolf proposed large increases in social spending – especially education, an area he claimed his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, neglected. To overcome structural budget deficits and transform public school finance, the governor recommended raising state income and sales taxes. Republican legislators challenged Wolf’s premises, and the two sides failed to reach a budget agreement for 10 months into the fiscal year.
- Accommodation: As public displeasure with both parties mounted, Wolf and Republicans reached an implicit bargain in 2016-17 that set the terms for his remaining years in office. The governor received annual increases in education funding, while Republicans stopped any increases in general tax rates. Both sides compromised on reforming public pensions and liquor sales. Republicans did not give in to Wolf’s proposals to impose a severance tax on natural gas extraction and raise the minimum wage, and Wolf opposed the GOP’s efforts to ban abortions, restrict voter access, and expand gun rights.
- Crisis: Wolf resorted to unilateral action to address two major public health crises. Opioid-related deaths increased 65 percent in Wolf’s first term, reaching an average of over 5,000 deaths per year. In January 2018, the governor declared a statewide disaster emergency. Wolf used his emergency powers to greater effect in March 2020, one year into his second term in office, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Within a month, he issued stay-at-home orders, shutdowns of schools and non-essential businesses, and masking and social distancing requirements. Nearly all mandatory restrictions were lifted by the end of 2021. As of New Year’s 2023, the Commonwealth reported close to 50,000 COVID-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly nine million Pennsylvanians are fully vaccinated.
- Backlash: Objecting to Wolf’s extraordinary use of authority, Republican legislators bypassed the governor, proposing and securing voter approval of a constitutional amendment in spring 2021 that limited a governor’s emergency powers. The GOP resorted to the same method in 2022, proposing five new amendments. To authorize voter referenda, the legislature needs to enact the proposals again in the session that begins this week. Relatedly, legislators of both parties challenged Wolf’s declaration that Pennsylvania will join RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which established a carbon emissions market across the Northeast. Commonwealth Court stopped the administration from implementing the governor’s directive in July 2022.
- Lame-Duck Frolic: Wolf played defense against Republican legislative initiatives in his last two years, issuing numerous vetoes. However, 2022 presented both parties with a unusually good problem – how to spend an enormous budget surplus. Naturally, Wolf and GOP leaders disagreed on what to do. Eyeing future tax cuts, Republicans wanted to save the money, while the governor wanted to spend it. In the end, both sides got their way. Wolf received a $1.8 billion education increase, much of it for poorer school districts, whereas Governor-Elect Josh Shapiro and the legislature will have $5 billion in rainy day reserves.
In addition to his exercise of legal prerogatives and bargaining skills, Wolf used all the tools of public persuasion at his disposal, including broadcast, digital, and social media. Only Family Dollar stores celebrated more openings than did Wolf, who christened new factories, workforce development programs, and education initiatives.
As the governor himself reflected, he did not get everything he wanted. Nor is Wolf sure he always did the right thing, particularly during the fog of the COVID-19 crisis.
On the other hand, during this extended time of partisan polarization, Wolf reestablished politics in Pennsylvania as the art of the possible.
In a state not known for honest or genteel government, Wolf proved that decency, integrity, and civility are no barriers to effective public service.
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