When Bill Murray’s world-weary weatherman character arrives in Punxsutawney in the classic movie Groundhog Day, little does he know the time loop that lies ahead. After endlessly reliving the same day, he asks, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
That’s a challenging question, and one Gov. Tom Wolf might be asking himself before his second budget address next week. Pennsylvanians must also be feeling stuck and wondering if a budget unveiled while the previous one remains in limbo truly matters.
In the movie, Murray’s character eventually learns life-changing lessons through trial and error. Will Wolf, likewise, show what lessons he’s learned from the most painful budget process in living memory? Or will it be “déjà vu all over again”?
At last year’s budget address, Wolf famously pledged to be a “different kind of governor.” This month, Wolf doubled down on his “different” pledge to the Associated Press. Unfortunately, after Wolf became the first governor in 40 years to veto an entire state budget, Pennsylvanians have learned “different” doesn’t always mean better.
Indications are that we’ll get more of the same from Wolf next week.
For example, the governor has already pledged to re-propose a natural gas severance tax “to fund education.” This despite the fact that the drilling industry is flailing, and public schools already receive $3,000 more per student than the national average. Not to mention the budget he vetoed on June 30 included record-high state spending on basic education.
After trying to raise taxes on Pennsylvanians not once, not twice, but five times, expect more talk of “revenue enhancements” during Wolf’s speech—“enhancements” that will diminish the size of your paycheck and reduce job opportunities.
Wolf laid out an ambitious tax and spend plan last year, including the largest tax increase in America, but his own list of first year accomplishments is paper thin.
Incredibly, Wolf pointed to 56 “jobs that pay” tour stops and 76 “schools that teach” visits—many amidst a self-declared travel ban—as achievements. Wolf’s equating 132 campaign stops with effective governing shows his stunning disconnect.
While Wolf congratulated himself for reducing the prison population, much of this success resulted from reforms adopted under Gov. Corbett years before Wolf took office.
Wolf also celebrated eliminating the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax—an archaic tax scheduled for phase-out 15 years ago. Wolf needed to do nothing to make that happen—and that’s exactly what he did.
Instead of identifying first-year mistakes, learning lessons, and changing direction, Wolf seems intent on claiming success where none is evident, taking credit where little is due, and insisting it’s his way or the highway.
Perhaps the best example of Wolf’s failing to learn from the budget crisis he ignited has been his reliance on campaign-style rhetoric rather than sober compromise.
Consider his signing of the budget sent to his desk on Christmas Eve—the third budget to land there. Exercising a line-item veto, while approving the vast majority of spending, Wolf labeled the budget “garbage,” “ridiculous,” and “an exercise in stupidity.”
Some of this same rhetoric appeared in recent attack ads paid for by America Works USA, an arm of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). This DGA group has spent more than $1.1 million on campaign-style TV ads and mailers since the end of December to parrot Wolf’s spin. Just last week, the DGA announced a new director named Joe Shafer. His previous job? Gov. Wolf’s deputy chief of staff.
Instead of changing course entering the new budget season, Wolf appears poised to continue governing by attack ad. No wonder the latest polling shows Wolf’s approval is lower now than at the same point in Corbett’s administration.
Here’s the reality: Pennsylvanians don’t want to wake up February 10 to find they’re reliving a year of fighting Wolf’s massive tax hike plans.
Governor Wolf can avoid the Groundhog Day budget time loop by getting government’s house in order before asking taxpayers to send more of their hard-earned dollars to Harrisburg.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.