Wolf’s ‘My Way or the Highway’ Approach Blocks Progress

Note: This commentary was published in the Bucks County Courier Times, the York Dispatch, the Centre Daily Times, at PennLive, and at other news outlets.

In his 2015 budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf urged dissenters, “If you don’t agree with my ideas, here is my request: please come with your own ideas. It’s not good enough to just say no and continue with the same old same old.” Talk is one thing—action is another.

Wolf’s recent veto of a responsible budget that shields working families from massive tax hikes reveals a “my way or the highway’” response—the equivalent of just saying “no.” Even after the House resoundingly defeated his tax-raising plan by a 0-193 vote, Wolf insists that legislative leaders drop Pennsylvanians’ priorities to focus on his own extreme agenda—one that, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, would increase taxes in our state higher than the other 49 states combined! 

Consider that Wolf’s budget, while dramatically increasing funds for school districts, includes harsh cuts to public charter schools, slashing funding for cyber charter schools to less than half of the state’s per-pupil average. He’s also proven hostile to giving parents and children more educational options in struggling school districts in Philadelphia and York.

Wolf vetoed historic liquor privatization passed by the General Assembly. Though a majority of voters—Democrats, Republicans and Independents—want to end the government monopoly of wine and spirit sales, Wolf says it’s his way or the highway.

On pension reform now sitting on his desk, Wolf has also threatened a veto, despite the fact that the legislation mirrors a transition his own company made from defined benefit to defined contribution, or 401(k)-type, plans.

No matter the issue and no matter public opinion, Wolf is strictly adhering to the agenda of his largest campaign contributors—public-sector unions—at taxpayers’ expense.

Sadly, that’s hardly surprising. During his campaign for governor, Wolf received $3.4 million in campaign contributions from government unions. He also received indirect support from at least three government unions that funneled $1.6 million in union dues to PA Families First, a Super PAC established by the Democratic Governors’ Association, which aided his election as governor.

Another group called “America Works USA” has been sending out mailers attacking Republicans for voting against Wolf’s tax increases, although every single Democrat representative voted against them as well. It’s no surprise that this group is also affiliated with the Democratic Governors’ Association and received $1.1 million from union dues as recently as 2012.

And while Wolf recently said he hopes to restart budget negotiations, his spokesman called one legislative leader “delusional” and another “the reason people don’t like Harrisburg.” The administration has called organizations that question its policy proposals “dishonest” and accused others of putting special interests “over the interests of children.” That’s not how to win friends and influence people.

While harsh rhetoric may not be unusual in Harrisburg, it is unexpected from someone who campaigned as “a new kind of governor.”

In the midst of budget negotiations, Wolf even took the unprecedented step of forming a political action committee (PAC). This new PAC, “Rebuild Pennsylvania” was unveiled in June, was registered by one of Wolf’s campaign staffers, and will be run by another of his political advisers. Wolf himself is reportedly the first contributor. This new group will support candidates of Wolf’s choosing and bring political pressure to advance his agenda.

In practice, Wolf never stopped campaigning, even sending out fundraising emails “to help pass his budget.” But while his campaign is still swinging, he’s yet to get around to governing.

On the campaign trail, candidate Wolf promised a middle class tax cut. But his budget will cost the middle class and every other income group in Pennsylvania—including low income families—more of their hard-earned money, all to meet the demands of his largest campaign supporters.

Given Wolf’s extreme positions, it may take months to convince him he needs to reach across the aisle and work with lawmakers. Historic opportunities to reform public pensions, privatize state liquor stores, and improve public education are too critical to simply reject.

Governor Wolf is right that the “same old same old” is no longer good enough. Unfortunately, the only thing standing in the way of progress is Wolf himself.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.