Politically Uncorrected: A Tale of Two Years, Two Men and Two Elections

tom wolfHe had never held an elective office; yet, he won the Democratic primary against formidable opposition, even though he was not endorsed by his own political party.

A successful millionaire businessman, he pumped millions into his own campaign–a campaign noteworthy for its extraordinarily skilled and effective use of television. His platform, albeit broad in scope, concentrated heavily on raising revenues for a state facing chronic fiscal deficits.  Most controversial was his proposal for a progressive state income tax, a proposal that lacked specificity.

We could be describing Pennsylvania’s 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf. We could be. But we aren’t.

Instead, we are describing another candidate who ran for governor of Pennsylvania almost a half century ago; we are describing the 1970 Democratic gubernatorial nominee (and successful general election victor) Milton J. Shapp.

Indeed, the many parallels between Shapp and Wolf are striking–both the men and the times they lived in:

  • In 1970, as in 2014, the Democrat challenger was a successful businessman who had not sought elected office before — while his Republican opponent was an incumbent public official striving to retain office.
  • In 1970, as in 2014, the Pennsylvania economy was struggling while state government wrestled with its perennial problem–state budget deficits aggravated by slow economic growth and too high unemployment.
  • In 1970, as in 2014, the incumbent governor was unpopular. Unable constitutionally to seek re-election his incumbent lieutenant governor became the Republican nominee.
  • In 1970, as in 2014, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate proposed a progressive income tax to solve the state’s revenue problems –while his Republican opponent opposed raising taxes and favored cutting (wasteful) spending.
  • Finally, the national political zeitgeist offers additional parallels between 2014 and 1970.  In 2014, state Republicans expect to benefit electorally from President Obama’s abysmally low approval ratings. The 1970 campaign produced similar dynamics with state Republicans probably benefiting from newly elected Richard Nixon’s still high approval ratings (57 percent approval).

Notwithstanding these remarkable similarities, Tom Wolf in 2014 is no mere carbon copy of Milton Shapp in 1970.  In truth, there are many differences between the two.

In 1970 Shapp, unlike Wolf, was not quite the political tyro. Shapp was making his second effort as Democratic nominee, having previously also won his party’s nomination in 1966 only to lose to Republican Ray Shafer in the general election.

Equally important, Shapp was vague, if not obscure, in his income tax advocacy while blurring many of his positions on social issues.  Wolf, on the other hand, albeit short on detail, has consistently called for a progressive tax to solve the state’s fiscal problems, while more clearly articulating his generally liberal social policy positions.

However, the most important difference between the two may be what happens or doesn’t happen after the election. When Shapp was elected in 1970 the enactment of a new state income tax became the focus of his first budget proposal to the legislature. Consequently, Shapp was able to get the Democratic-controlled legislature to adopt a graduated income tax in March, 1971. It was in quick fashion struck down three months later by the state Supreme Court–ruling it violated the uniformity clause of the 1873 state constitution. Eventually by summer’s end, a new 2.5 percent flat tax was enacted, resolving the state’s acute fiscal crisis.

Wolf’s experience will be different. If he is elected, his ability to enact his agenda is highly unlikely to match that of Shapp in 1970, whose margin of victory that year (some 200, 000 votes) was accompanied by a Democratic sweep of both houses of the General Assembly, the first for the Democrats in 30 years. Wolf may be on his way to an impressive November victory, but not even the most optimistic Democratic analyst expects his party to prevail in the General Assembly elections. Very likely both houses of the legislatures will remain under Republican control.

Inauspicious as that may be for Wolf’s tax plans, it actually gets worse. The progressive income tax that Wolf has proposed almost certainly would face overwhelming opposition in a Republican-dominated legislature. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, any progressive tax would presumably be blocked by the uniformity clause of the state constitution, which states in part “all taxes shall be uniform on the same class of subjects.”

In effect, Pennsylvania cannot enact any progressive income tax without amending the constitution, a time consuming, laborious, and politically perilous undertaking that among other things would require the concurrence of a super majority of both legislative chambers.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon. Nor will a Wolf electoral victory produce in state government a consensus similar to the one achieved by Shapp in 1970 or for that matter any consensus at all.

Clearly, crisis will confront whoever wins Pennsylvania’s 2014 gubernatorial. That may not be all bad.

Crisis often brings solutions to governmental problems otherwise seen as insoluble. Indeed, today it sometimes seems only crisis induces government to act. That is really what happened in 1970.

Fifty years from now will history record that it’s also what happened in 2014?

5 Responses

  1. Issac…Take your diplomas and use them for Toilet paper. Who made you the expert ? Your a liberal blowhard and thats about it. You want the drillers to pay severance tax so the public sector and Teachers unions can get their pensions paid for . Who are you kidding..because thats exactly what Wolf wants to do with the extra tax revenue . He came out and said it. Don’t flatter yourself Issac your not as smart as you think!

  2. P.S. If you’RE going to accuse someone of not being intelligent, perhaps you shouldn’t confuse basic homonyms because it makes you look foolish. You’RE a typical conservative nutjob who thinks he understands economics but doesn’t understand basic math or English because you’RE TOO obsessed with your ideology to evaluate the facts.

    P.P.S. Temple has an excellent burn center, but I don’t give out diplomas when I school people.

  3. Phillyboy – there are limits on how far you can go horizontally, and no one is going a couple miles, let alone a couple hundred miles, horizontally.

    West Virginia has a 5 percent gross value severance tax. Here’s a quick thought experiment: would you rather pay five percent on $50,000 of income or 50 percent on $5 million of income? If you say five percent, you’re not thinking like a business.

    Let us look at the math. Natural Gas Gross Production and Withdrawals (in millions of cubic feet) for 2012:
    West Virginia – 141,071
    Pennsylvania – 2,042,632

    Furthermore, production for the five-year period from 2007 to 2012 in West Virginia has remained relatively stable, whereas it has grown exponentially in Pennsylvania and is projected to continue to grow.

    For these reasons, there really is no concern that production will leave Pennsylvania if we impose a severance tax consistent with every other gas-producing state in the country. We could even impose a severance tax that is moderately higher without reducing production. This isn’t a matter of being able to set up a factory somewhere else – we have the gas and they want it.

  4. Observer…The gas companies could just as easily move to W.Va. and Ohio to extract gas from Marshellus shale. They pay the highest corporate tax rate on the globe at 9.9%.Those states that impose an extraction fee dont have that high of a corporate tax rate. The gas industry has revitalized the economy of the entire northern Central region of Pennsylvania .Your a typical left winger who doesnt understand economics,. The gas companies could easily leave the state to do business in W.Va. and Ohio if they are taxed too heavily… Business’s have fled Pennsylvania due to the highest tax rate in the world at 9.9%. You and your liberal friends are not to bright Mr. Observer.By the Way….Wolf wont just impose an extraction fee on the drillers he will stick it to every constituent in the State.
    Wolf is in the the teachers union back pocket. Wolf received $550,000 from the PSEA for his campaign .
    Wolf”s head is buried in the ass of the PSEA. he actually said that there is not a pension problem in Pa. !!!!
    Screw the PSEA and Tom Wolf !!!!!!!!!!!! Wolf is more Obamanation. WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH!

  5. Shortsighted article. Wolf is being elected to impose a tax on the Frackers, so we don’t continue to look like the Dumbest State in the Nation. And many savvy Republican legislators are reading the tea leaves and supporting the idea already. Whoever thinks the “progressive income tax” idea is the Wolf centerpiece has been reading too many Republican press releases. The gubernatorial election is as much about putting a hard brake on the Teabaggers in the legislature as anything else. The Rightwing Social Engineering and ALEC bills will be going nowhere under Wolf, and the Republican Leadership is all too happy to be able to say “Shut Up” to Metcalfe and his ilk.

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