Politically Uncorrected: The Age of Tom Wolf

PA-Governor-Mansion2It’s not often that someone’s greatest wish and worst nightmare occur at the same time, but for Governor-elect Tom Wolf both are fated to occur the same day, hour and minute. January 20th 2015 will witness the swearing in of the state’s new governor. For Wolf, the day will mark the culmination of a decade’s long quest for the office but also the beginning of a series of seemingly insuperable challenges – greater than faced by any new governor in modern times.

Pennsylvania, as the age of Wolf begins, faces a witch’s brew of political, cultural, and fiscal crisis that will test Wolf from his first day in office. Any one of them might occupy a new governor’s agenda for most of his term. Wolf has to deal with all of them – and as the short, sad tenure of Tom Corbett showed – the clock is ticking for him even as he prepares to be inaugurated. It will only tick louder as time goes on.

Here is a short, but hardly sweet compilation of Wolf’s early to do list.

THE FISCAL CRISIS – The state has a $2 billion structural deficit going into 2015, but that’s only the beginning of it. There is also a growing pension debt that is estimated to be around $60 billion dollars, as well as a state and local revenue system (taxes) that was outdated in the last century. Pennsylvania’s fiscal mess is the consequence of decades of state politicians kicking the fiscal can down the road, seeking short term solutions to long term problems, and choosing good politics over good policy time after time. This state and most others have deficits and fiscal challenges from time to time but this one is not typical. It’s a “structural deficit” meaning the state has a permanent revenue shortfall unless spending is massively reduced or taxes are raised. This is the stark dilemma that faces Wolf on January 20th. It is easily the most intractable financial problem the state has faced since the early 1970’s.

THE LEGISLATURE – Wolf’s partner – or adversary – in tackling the deficit is the state legislature. But this is not your grandfather’s legislature – not even your great grandfather’s legislature. The ladies and gentlemen of Pennsylvania’s House and Senate are a different breed of lawmaker, perhaps last seen in Pennsylvania in anti-bellum times. Until now the state legislature was a place of barter and trade, of carrots and sticks, with legislative leaders that got a little, gave a little, and made it all come out in the end – routine tactics used to obtain votes and to get legislation passed.

But that has changed following the infamous pay hike of 2005 that brought 54 new members to the state legislature, reinforced by the Tea Party 2010 election cycle that similarly caused a large turnover. The new lawmakers have been far more resistant to the old tactics, far less inclined to compromise, and far more reluctant to being led. They are conservative, Republican, ideological and sometimes fractious. This is the legislature Republican Tom Corbett could not deal with; it is the legislature Democrat Tom Wolf must deal with.

IDEOLOGICAL POLITICS – Wolf takes office amidst an era of unprecedented polarization and partisanship, not unlike that infusing our national politics and just as likely to paralyze problem solving and policy-making. Pennsylvania has had divided government before but this is something new. It is instead “divisive government” in which almost every major issue is framed in black and white ideological terms. The great problem with ideological politics both at state and national levels is that our system of checks and balances and separation of powers don’t work well in an environment in which every compromise is a craven sellout, every bargain a corrupt bargain. The result at the national level has been gridlock and inertia. Will the results at the equally polarized state level be different?  Somehow Wolf must find a way to do what Washington politicians of both parties have failed to do – carve out the common ground among our ideological warriors that will allow the state to tackle and solve its growing list of chronic problems.

THE VOTERS – The electorate is often the overlooked component of the Pennsylvania political puzzle. It was the voters who gave Tom Wolf his chance by deciding his predecessor had run out of chances. But it is an electorate that does not always know its own mind and whose views are going through a big change. It elected Wolf but it nevertheless increased GOP control over the legislature, while the congressional delegation remains solidly Republican, certainly due in part to gerrymandering. Still, it’s an electorate in transition, but transition to where is unclear. The great cultural issues that once defined state elections are in flux.

Pennsylvania voters now support gay marriage, a state law making it illegal to discriminate against gays in housing and employment, and medical marijuana. It’s an electorate not greatly excited by either the conservative agenda or its liberal counterpart. It trusts government very little while paradoxically expecting government to work. At the center of these contradictions is the traditional Pennsylvania moderate, neither fiercely ideological nor partisan, but more pragmatic, politically centrist, and interested in solving problems, and certainly in getting results.  Increasingly, it will be looking to Tom Wolf for those results.

December 11th, 2014 | Posted in Features, Front Page Stories, Governor, Top Stories | 10 Comments

10 thoughts on “Politically Uncorrected: The Age of Tom Wolf”

  1. Chris Martinez says:

    13 who are yoo to say I shd bee aint aloud to speek out on stuf, Im a person jest like evrybod else and I got ever rite to say what I thinks about how goevenore corbitt will win based on all the poles, how bout you be band from speekng ur mind how u like that?,

  2. jim says:

    Jeanne—you shouldn’t be commenting on this site if you have to ask for the definition of centrist.

  3. 13thDistrictDem says:

    Could PoliticsPA please ban ‘Chris Martinez’ and his IP address? His comments never add anything, and the Corbett schtick was old *before* the election. It’s certainly even older now…

  4. chet says:

    Did he end up going to the PA Society?

  5. Chris Martinez says:

    a re-count is gonna show prove that goevenore corbitt ackshully one the electon in a land slide jest as all the poles said he would,

  6. Ryan says:

    The voters got what they want, divided government.

  7. The Lizard says:

    Tom Wolf got exactly the legislature that he and his campaign worked for.

  8. Tom Joad says:

    Representative Stephen Bloom led a successful effort to eliminate state inheritance taxes on PA farming families. When questioned during one of his town hall meetings as to how the lost revenue would be offset, his answer was “greater productivity”. duh!

    We are in a bad way here people. More revenue is needed. The Republican controlled legislature will not allow for any increase in taxes. And, as for the Stephen Blooms out there, we are not going to grow our way out of this.

  9. Harvey Mymon says:

    Excited to see what he’s made of.

  10. Jeanne Doyle says:

    Could the authors of this article please define centrist for us.

Comments are closed.