It’s not often that someone’s greatest wish and worst nightmare occur at the same time, but for Gov.-elect Tom Wolf both are fated to occur the same day, hour and minute. Jan. 20 will witness the swearing in of the state’s new governor. For Wolf, the day will mark the culmination of a 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pension debt that is estimated to be around $60 billion, as well as a state and local revenue system (taxes) that was outdated in the past century.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 Jan. 20. It is easily the most intractable financial problem the state has faced since the early 1970s.
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THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY: 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 the House and Senate are a different breed of lawmaker, perhaps last seen in Pennsylvania in antebellum times. Until now the state legislature was a place of barter and trade, of carrots and sticks, with legislative leaders who 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 increase 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 Corbett could not deal with; it is the legislature Democrat Wolf must deal with.
IDEOLOGICAL POLITICS: Wolf takes office amid an era of unprecedented polarization and partisanship, not unlike that infusing our national politics and just as likely to paralyze problem solving and policymaking. 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 doesn’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 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 Wolf for those results.