By John Guerriero
Erie Times-News, Pa.
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf completed a remarkable turnaround in Pennsylvania politics by defeating Gov. Tom Corbett. But his toughest work could lie ahead when the Democrat tries to get his initiatives through a Republican House and Senate majority that saw gains in Tuesday’s midterm election.
Wolf, 65, a York County businessman, was one of the few Democrats nationally who claimed victory on a day the GOP ruled. His defeat of Corbett, also 65, placed the incumbent in the dubious category of being the first sitting Pennsylvania governor to lose re-election.
However, Republicans bolstered their majority in the 203-member Pennsylvania House of Representatives, from 111 to 119, and the GOP increased its majority in the state Senate from 27 to 30 seats. In January, the Senate will be comprised of 30 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Wolf ’s first big test will be on the first Tuesday in March, when he proposes his first
budget to the Legislature and citizens, said Terry Madonna, associate political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“Then we will have a sense about his priorities and a sense about how he plans to pay for them, … and we will have a sense of how he plans to deal with a $2 billion structural deficit,” Madonna said, referring to pension obligations and ongoing state debt.
Madonna said he expects Wolf will propose a tax on the extraction of natural gas and oil, in part to help restore cuts to basic education.
A 5 percent extraction tax was one of the key themes of Wolf’s campaign. But Wolf, who greeted supporters Wednesday at a cafe in York, is unlikely to win approval for his pitch to change the state’s income- tax system, political analysts said.
Under his proposal, Wolf said individuals earning $70,000 to $90,000 and married couples making $140,000 to $180,000 would pay the same as they do now, those below those ranges would get tax breaks, and higher wage earners such as himself would pay more. “That seems
like it would be a really tough sell in the Pennsylvania Legislature,” Madonna said.
Michael Federici, political science professor at Mercyhurst University, said there’s “virtually no chance that he’s going to get a higher state income tax, especially on wealthy taxpayers.” The extraction tax is possible depending on the status of the budget and whether the tax is successfully pitched as a way to boost education funding to school districts, Federici said. “If he wants to restore cuts in education, which he does, that may actually make an extraction tax easier to get through. Because then the state Legislature has to answer the question: ‘Well, then, how are we going to pay for this?’” Federici said. “If there’s a choice between raising the state income tax on wealthier people or an extraction tax, then the extraction tax is the more palatable of the two options,” he said.
Given Wolf’s strong margin of victory, by nearly 10 percentage points, Federici said he believes Wolf will enjoy “some sort of honeymoon period” with lawmakers. “And under the cover of Wolf’s victory, Republicans that would otherwise perhaps
not vote for an extraction tax, might vote for it,” he said.
Part of Wolf’s success in promoting a legislative agenda will depend on his leadership skills, Federici said. And Wolf might be better at that part of the job than Corbett, he said. “Corbett doesn’t have the sort of skills to foster a relationship with the state Legislature that leads (it) to support and pass his legislation. He’s just not good at it.
And it remains to be seen whether Wolf is good at it. But it’s hard to imagine that he would be worse than Corbett was,” Federici said. Even so, Madonna said Wolf will have a tougher time in the House than the Senate.
Many House Republicans are more conservative, and the chamber is more polarized, he said. “Most were elected (Tuesday) with significant percentages. They don’t need (Wolf),” Madonna said.
JOHN GUERRIERO can be reached at 870-1690 or by e-mail.
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