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Wolf’s first term: Wins, losses and budget fights

Published January 15. 2019 11:28AM

Here is a look back at Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term:

Re-election

Wolf won re-election with nearly 58 percent of the vote in November, backed by a unified Democratic Party and aided by labor unions, a constellation of progressive issues groups, and a grassroots backlash to President Donald Trump.

His comfortable victory over Republican Scott Wagner was no surprise: He led polls by double-digits since the race began and employed a conservative campaign strategy seemingly designed to capitalize on Wagner’s penchant for head-scratching remarks. It worked, particularly when Wagner made national headlines for warning Wolf in a video that he’s “going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.”

Fights

Wolf began his first term by trying to build relationships with Republican lawmakers, but the comity didn’t last.

An unprecedented nine-month stalemate followed Wolf’s first budget proposal for a multibillion-dollar tax increase he framed as necessary to wipe out persistent post-recession deficits, corporate tax loopholes and disparities in public school funding.

The stalemate was punctuated by Wolf’s blunt second-year budget speech in which he warned lawmakers to face up to Pennsylvania’s ticking fiscal time bomb or “find another job.”

House Republicans didn’t bite, and little of it ever became law. Wolf and lawmakers eventually agreed on a smaller package of tax increases, including on cigarettes.

Wolf then changed tactics, emphasized fiscal austerity and tried to restore a cooperative spirit to the Capitol’s corridors. Bipartisanship came and went.

In 2017, Wolf and Republican lawmakers faced each other down in another budget stalemate.

This time, however, Wolf had a better hand: Republicans had already passed a spending plan, but not a plan to pay for it, so Wolf unilaterally came up with the cash without lawmakers.

They passed a revenue package several weeks later, and Wolf grudgingly went along with an aggressive expansion of gambling to raise cash for a threadbare treasury, as well as plans to borrow roughly $2 billion to backfill a huge cash shortfall.

Wins

Wolf got halfway to his first-term goal of increasing education funding by $2 billion, while paring back standardized testing, emphasizing prekindergarten education and boosting computer, science and math courses in high schools.

The state’s uninsured rate dropped as Wolf aggressively defended Pennsylvania’s participation in the Affordable Care Act’s provisions.

Wolf and lawmakers passed legislation to combat opioid addiction and start a medical marijuana program, while Wolf vetoed 17 bills — including one aimed at narrowing abortion rights — without suffering a successful override.

Wolf also successfully imposed a moratorium on the death penalty — a strategy upheld by the state’s highest court.

Losses

Wolf hit a brick wall of Republican resistance to his proposals to increase the minimum wage, expand background checks on firearms purchases, overhaul how public schools are funded and impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production.

The Senate Republican majority also blocked his first nominee to lead the Pennsylvania State Police.

Fiscal issues

Wolf has pronounced persistent deficits to be over, but that’s questionable. Wolf agreed to take on more borrowing and packed the current budget with one-time cash infusions, potentially complicating future budgets.

Meanwhile, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office is projecting a $1 billion-plus deficit next year, and Pennsylvania faces long-term fiscal headwinds, including a shrinking working-age population.

Economy

In Wolf’s first term, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate sank to an 18-year low, reflecting national trends, while employment hit record highs.

The state’s job-creation rate remained among the nation’s slower states since Wolf took office — 34th through November — but it is better than the bottom-10 ranking Pennsylvania has recorded over the past few decades.

Scandals

Wolf avoided a major first-term scandal, although he abruptly dismissed several cabinet members without saying why. He also ordered his inspector general to investigate cheating allegations at the state police academy and complaints about the treatment of state employees by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack and Stack’s wife.

Ultimately, Wolf stripped Stack of state police protection and limited cleaning, grounds keeping and maintenance by state employees at Stack’s official residence. Stack lost his re-election bid.

— Associated Press

Comments
Hey folks... unemployment rate sank to an 18-year low because of President Donald J Trump, and by the way, we lag most of the Red States in Employment.
The grownups in the General Assembly stopped the governor from his minimum wage garbage, and his school funding folly. We need to stop wasting money in the way we do education.
Let's face it, the teachers union is the only reason we have this wolf in sheep's clothes.
Thank you teachers. Oh yeah, you PSU alumni also.

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