As governor, Tom Wolf will target jobs, schools, changing government
HARRISBURG — After he took the oath as Pennsylvania's 47th governor, Democrat Tom Wolf in his inaugural address Tuesday called for cooperation between his administration and the Republican-controlled legislature on balancing the budget, improving education and developing job opportunities.
“We need leaders today who are willing to listen to each other, and learn from each other, and work together to give all Pennsylvanians a shot at a great life,” Wolf said before several thousand people in a ceremony behind the state Capitol. “This age — and this time — demands nothing less.”
Wolf, 66, a millionaire businessman from Mt. Wolf in York County, said his administration will be devoted to three goals: “Jobs that pay. Schools that teach. And government that works.”
Reactions from Republican lawmakers generally were muted in a General Assembly scarred by bitter partisanship, though some complained about a lack of specifics in the speech.
“We certainly share the same goals: better education, jobs, working together,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. “How we'll reach some of those goals is what takes debate.”
One day's worth of a new bipartisan tone and reduced rancor may last for the “short term,” said Wes Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.
“People will dance around each other to see who fires the first shot,” said Leckrone. Once Wolf delivers his budget in March and lawmakers see his specific plans, “it's easier to take shots.”
But Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who attended the inauguration, said, “I'm optimistic with all the challenges of the huge budget deficit, the looming pension issue, how to deal with the shale extraction tax, there are opportunities to move things forward.”
Snowflakes began falling almost on cue at noon as festivities commenced. The Renaissance Choir of Pittsburgh sang as anti-fracking protesters 100 yards away could be heard blowing whistles and chanting “ban fracking now.”
Wolf told the crowd he will be an “unconventional governor.
“I may be the first governor of Pennsylvania who operated a forklift, managed a hardware store, volunteered for the Peace Corps and ran a business. I am not a product of our political system,” said Wolf. “I ran for governor because I refuse to be part of the first generation of Pennsylvanians forced to tell their kids that they need to go somewhere else to succeed. ... I ran for governor because I believe with all my heart that we can rebuild the middle class and get this state back on track.”
In his first action, Wolf signed executive orders in the afternoon prohibiting members of his administration from accepting gifts and another he says will end no-bid legal contracts, instead requiring competitive bidding.
Wolf defeated Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in the November election, making him the first candidate to beat an incumbent governor in modern times.
“I think the governor can get things done,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “They both (R's and D's) have to have pragmatic qualities. If they want to have better government rather than pure gridlock, they have to accept the legitimacy of the other's office. The existence of divided government crystallizes those perspectives.”
Anthony May, a former top aide to the late Gov. Robert Casey, a Democrat, said Wolf “has a better chance of being successful with the legislature than Governor Corbett.”
Corbett did little to court lawmakers and there was animosity over his prosecution of lawmakers and staff as attorney general, analysts said.
Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said Wolf has the “perfect personality” to work with a Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“He's got an infinite amount of patience ... and a well-controlled ego,” Rendell said. The Republicans have a “wish list,” he said that includes pension and liquor store system reforms and transportation projects and that gives Wolf leverage in negotiations.
Wolf said with “a large deficit, stagnant wages and shrinking middle class. ... Our challenges are great.”
His team estimates the state budget deficit at $2.3 billion.
He has proposed a 5 percent tax on natural gas drilling to help pay for education, but with natural gas prices low, critics say it won't bring in the $1 billion Wolf has projected. During the campaign, he suggested raising the state's 3.07 percent personal income tax rate on people making more than $70,000 to $90,000 per year as a way to allow middle and lower income Pennsylvanians to pay less.
“Pennsylvanians didn't vote for higher taxes,” Scarnati said, contending Republican gains in the House and Senate are equivalent to Wolf's nearly 10-point victory over Corbett.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said Wolf “clearly reached out (to Republicans) and he understands there has to be a collaborative bipartisan approach.”
Either lawmakers choose “bipartisanship” or “Washington inefficiency,” Frankel said.
Eleven of Wolf's 26 Cabinet members, top staffers and commissioners were brought back from the Rendell administration, where Wolf was revenue secretary.
“He'll be his own man,” Rendell said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and email@example.com.