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?