Governor’s Lone Wolf Approach Leaves Families Wanting
- Throughout his two terms in office, Governor Tom Wolf has showcased his preference to act unilaterally and consistent unwillingness to work with the state legislature. The unprecedented power Wolf has wielded during the COVID-19 emergency, including ignoring election law, is just the latest example of how Wolf sidesteps the legislative process. Due to his fiscal track record and state lockdown policies, national reports rank Governor Wolf as one of the worst governors in the United States.
RECORD NUMBER OF VETOES
- Gov. Tom Wolf has wielded his veto power to block an unprecedented amount of legislation, with a high of 23 in 2019-2020, the most in decades.
- During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Wolf’s vetoes often corresponded with unilateral action to implement a same or similar policy—without the legislature:
— On April 21, the Pa House passed HB 2388 to allow car sales to resume. On the same day, Wolf allowed limited reopening of car dealerships. He later vetoed HB 2388.
— On April 21, the Pa House also passed HB 2400 to reopen construction work. Two days later, Wolf announced that construction work would resume on May 1.
— On May 18, the state legislature passed HB 2412 to reopen real estate. A day later, Wolf vetoed the bill and announced his own plan for reopening real estate businesses.
— On October 16, Wolf vetoed HB 2513 that would have allowed restaurants to reopen to at least 50% capacity. In September, Wolf announced that restaurants could increase indoor capacity to 50%.
UNBALANCED AND UNSIGNED BUDGETS
- Pennsylvania governors have a legal obligation to certify that state budget appropriations do not exceed revenues. Refusing to sign a budget and letting an unbalanced budget pass into law is irresponsible and, at worst, illegal. Despite this, Wolf did not sign the state budget for three consecutive years between 2015 and 2017.
— In his first budget address, Wolf proposed a $4.6 billion tax increase, which would have been the largest tax hike in Pennsylvania history. Wolf held out for his priorities in a nine-month stalemate with the state legislature. When he did not get his tax increases, Wolf let the 2015-16 budget pass without his signature.
— In 2016, Wolf allowed an unbalanced budget to become law, with expenditures exceeding revenues by over $1 billion. Legislators passed the revenue package on July 13, twelve days after the spending bill passed on July 1.
— Wolf also allowed the 2017-18 unbalanced budget to become law without his signature. The budget had no solution to close a $2.2 billion deficit. Again, the revenue package followed the spending package. Lawmakers did not approve a revenue plan until the end of October, almost four months after the spending plan.
— In response to the two consecutive unbalanced budgets, several individuals filed a lawsuit in 2017 against Governor Wolf and argued that the state government violates constitutional law by allowing budget spending to exceed revenue. While the Commonwealth Court ruled that the governor was not legally accountable for the budgets he let pass into law, the court did affirm that Pennsylvanian taxpayers have standing to seek legal recourse for unconstitutional budgets.
- Since Wolf took office in 2015, Pennsylvania’s total operating budget has increased by almost $18 billion. Wolf has led the charge for spending and tax increases on 14 occasions, including but not limited to the following:
— 2015-16 (Failed): Wolf proposed a $4.6 billion tax hike, which would have been the largest tax hike in Pennsylvania history. This proposal increased the personal income tax rate to 3.7% and sales tax to 6.6%, among several other changes.
— 2016-17 (Failed): Wolf proposed a $2.7 billion tax hike, roughly half of which would come from raising personal income tax by 11%. The proposal also included a severance tax of 6.5%, cigarette tax increase of $1 per pack, insurance premium tax surcharge of 0.5%, and new 6% sales taxes on cable TV, movie theater tickets, and digital downloads.
— 2016-17 (Enacted): Wolf settled on a $650 million tax hike, accompanied by a $1.6 billion spending increase.
— 2017-18 (Failed): While voicing opposition to broad-based tax hikes, Wolf proposed raising other taxes by more than $1 billion. The plan included additional tax on the natural gas industry, expanding the sales tax (to custom programing, design and data processing, commercial storage, airline food, and aircraft sales) and expanding the tax on insurance premiums.
— 2017-18 (Enacted): Wolf settled on a tax hike of $113 million over two years, accompanied by $1.5 billion in borrowing.
— In his 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21 budget proposals Wolf’s tax hike centered on a natural gas severance tax designed to raise around $300 million each year.
— In 2021, Wolf proposed a $3 billion tax hike, with a 46% increase in the personal income tax coupled with a legally questionable expansion of the tax exemption program—a tax hike that would hammer small business and represent an increase of $1,500 for a family at the median income for a family of four.
OVERSPENDING AND SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATIONS
- Even when Wolf’s tax increase proposals fail, he boosts spending above the approved state operating budget. Because of significant cost overruns, the Wolf’s administration is increasingly relying on supplemental appropriations, including:
— $400 million in 2017 (for 2016-17 budget)
— $673 million in 2019 (for 2018-19 budget)
— More than $1 billion in 2020 (for 2019-20 budget)
— An estimated $900 million in 2021 (for 2020-21 budget)
- The Laffer-ALEC Report on Economic Freedom ranks Governor Wolf 41 out of 50, making Tom Wolf one of the worst governors in the United States. The ranking factors in the governor’s legislative history and the state’s economic outcomes, which are strongly influenced by the governor’s policy. The report highlights:
— Wolf’s vetoes of tax cuts passed by the Pennsylvania legislature, despite the state having one of the highest corporate income tax rates and the second-highest gas tax rate in the nation.
— Wolf’s lockdown of the state economy during COVID-19, one of the most extreme lockdowns in the country.
- Cato Institute’s 2020 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors gives Tom Wolf a ‘C’. The low grade is due to Wolf’s big spending initiatives, such as his push for a natural gas severance tax, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and a broader state corporate tax base. (This represents a significant improvement for Gov. Wolf’s grade from his first term, when he ranked dead last in the 2016 index).
- Gov. Wolf’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 is among the worst in the country.
— In 2020, Pennsylvania ranked in the top 15 states for coronavirus deaths per million (at 594.4 deaths/million). Although nursing homes experienced 70% of state coronavirus deaths in the first few months of the pandemic, Wolf dragged his feet to implement a plan or protecting nursing homes.
— Trailing only Michigan, Pennsylvania had the second highest number of establishments (30%) that faced government-mandated closure. The national rate of closures was 19%.
— Pennsylvania ranks top 7 in the nation for state unemployment increases (at 9%) between January and July 2020. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reports that the initial unemployment claims were unprecedented because of the state’s early and expansive shutdown.
— Pennsylvania also ranks top 7 in the nation for employment losses between February 2020 and October 2020. Employment in the accommodation and food service industry, an industry that bore the brunt of Wolf’s COVID-19 lockdown orders, decreased 25.22%.
— Gov. Wolf justified his lockdown measures by saying “We don’t want to become Florida.” Florida, a state with lax pandemic restrictions, has experienced about 20% less deaths per capita than Pennsylvania.
— Gov. Wolf received an ‘F’ for his handling of the pandemic in The Committee to Unleash Prosperity and Freedomworks’ ranking, A Report Card On Reopening States’ Economies. Only New Jersey governor Phil Murphy scored worse, with an ‘F-‘.
- Pennsylvania continues to suffer from the economic impacts of Wolf’s draconian business lockdowns.
— As of May 2021, CNN ranks Pennsylvania 39 out of 50 (50=worst) in their Back-to-Normal index. The index compares the state’s current economic activity to its pre-pandemic level last March. Pennsylvania’s economy is currently operating at 86% of where it was last year.
— Pennsylvania is near the bottom of State Policy Network’s state job recovery rankings, which means that Pennsylvania is projected to take several years to recover the jobs lost in 2020. As of March 2021, there was a -6.8% change in Pennsylvania payroll jobs compared to January 2020, and 414,600 total jobs left to recover. Other states, like Idaho and Utah, have already recovered all jobs lost during the pandemic.
— The Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) reports that Pennsylvania’s GDP shrunk 4.1% in 2020, which will lead to a $2 billion structural deficit. The IFO estimates that some jobs lost in Pennsylvania during the pandemic will still not be recovered by 2026.
“THE LONE WOLF” DOCTRINE: THE GOVERNOR’S UNILATERAL ACTIONS
- In the last two years, Tom Wolf has usurped the state legislature, taking unilateral action on several policy measures.
— On October 3, 2019, Wolf signed an executive order that instructed Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to begin the regulatory process for joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). When a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers passed HB 2025, a bill that would have required legislative approval for the state’s participation in RGGI, Wolf vetoed it.
— On March 19, 2020, Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining businesses” to close. For months, Wolf left lawmakers in the dark about his controversial waiver process that determined which businesses were allowed to stay open.
— A day before the June 2020 primary, Wolf signed an executive order that gave several counties a one-week extension for receiving mail-in ballots.
— For the November 2020 election, Wolf’s administration decided mail-in ballots could not be thrown out on the basis of signature analysis. The Governor failed to successfully negotiate changes with the legislature and instead backed the Pa Democratic Party’s lawsuit that asked the state Supreme Court to extend the deadline to receive mail-in ballots, allow “drop box” locations, and ban lifting residency restrictions for election observers. Wolf supported last minute changes to election law by the Court instead of working with the state legislature to update the laws on the time, place, and manner of federal elections.
— In July 2020, Wolf withheld $13 million in federal CARES Act funding from Lebanon County, circumventing both the state and federal legislatures in aid distribution.
— When Wolf could not convince the state legislature to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, he expanded eligibility for overtime pay beyond the federal threshold. Wolf had previously told the legislature that he would relent on the overtime rule if they raised the minimum wage.
— In April 2021, Wolf fired 11 appointed employees in retaliation for the state Senate refusing to confirm one of his nominees. He then dismissed every member of the Charter Schools Appeals Board—an action with dubious legitimacy that makes it impossible for the Board to hear any appeals.
- Unfortunately, the “Lone Wolf” doctrine goes back to Tom Wolf’s first years as governor. Throughout both terms of office, Wolf has shown a consistent inability to work with the legislature:
— In 2015, Wolf became the first governor in decades to fully veto a budget. He rejected 274 line items that equal or surpassed what he had requested.
— In March 2015, Wolf unilaterally decided to help SEIU (Service Employees International Union) unionize home health care workers via an executive order. Governor Rendell rescinded a similar order after being challenged in Court.
— In 2016, Wolf line item vetoed over $900 million in prison funding and then asked the State Treasurer to release the funding anyways. When the House passed a bill to restore the funding, Wolf again threatened to veto.
— In 2016, after a $3 billion education funding veto, Wolf distributed school funds according to his highly political “formula” that ignored recommendations of the bipartisan education funding commission.
— In September 2015 and again in 2017, Wolf delayed approval letters for EITC and OSTC tax credit scholarship programs. Wolf withheld scholarship money from low-income students during the budget impasse even though EITC and OSTC are not part of budget appropriations.
— Wolf’s record with the state legislature is not the only example of Wolf’s inability to work with those he disagrees with. Wolf successfully removed Bill Greene as the chair of the School Reform Commission after Greene approved five new charter schools, a move Wolf did not support. David Meckely, appointed to develop a financial recovery plan for the York City School District, had to resign after proposing to convert district schools to charter schools. Meckely said that Wolf’s opposition to charter schools made his financial recovery plan impossible. Wolf also tried to fire Erik Arneson, the former executive director of the Office of Open Records appointed by Wolf’s predecessor. The Pa. Supreme Court ruled that Wolf overstepped his authority by firing with no-cause, an unwarranted interference with an independent, accountability office.
- In addition to taking unilateral action and vetoing legislation, Wolf often chooses to punt difficult decisions to the state Supreme Court. Again, this showcases Wolf’s inability to work with the legislature.
— In 2018, Wolf rejected the new district map that was drawn by lawmakers. His reluctance to meet Republican lawmakers at the bargaining table meant that redistricting was punted to the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court which eventually enacted their own map.
- In June 2020, the state legislature passed HR 836 in a bipartisan effort to terminate the Governor’s state of disaster emergency. Wolf ignored the concurrent resolution and again appealed to the state Supreme Court. The Pa Supreme Court sided with Wolf, ruling that the General Assembly cannot terminate the governor’s emergency powers.
WOLF’S POLICY FAILURES & LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came under fire for deliberately withholding information on COVID-19 patients in nursing homes. Unfortunately, Cuomo is not the only governor that mishandled the nursing home crisis. Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf should also be held accountable for a slow, mismanaged response to the COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania nursing homes.
— Although nursing homes experienced 70% of coronavirus deaths in the first few months of the pandemic, Wolf dragged his feet to implement a plan for protecting nursing homes. Pennsylvania officials had an aggressive plan to protect nursing homes as early as mid-March, but only a limited version of the plan was implemented–and this was after major outbreaks had already occurred.
— Despite requests from news organizations and senior welfare groups like AARP, the Wolf administration repeatedly refused to release the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases and deaths. After growing pressure, the state finally released an incomplete and error-ridden list in May. A Spotlight PA report from September 2020 revealed that “Weekly reports released by the Department of Health are consistently missing data for more than 100 of the state’s 693 nursing homes. In at least one case, those omissions obscured a deadly outbreak from the public.”
— The Wolf administration did not prioritize a universal testing mandate for nursing homes. Wolf waited until three months into the pandemic to mandate testing in nursing homes–and then only required testing to be done by the end of July.
— Pennsylvania groups representing over 900 long-term care facilities are suing the Wolf administration for illegally withholding $150 million in Medicaid funding. The groups argue that the withheld funds, which they are entitled to under state law, were crucial for responding to COVID-19.
— During the pandemic, the Wolf administration ordered long term care facilities to accept patients that had been hospitalized because of COVID-19 or otherwise exposed to the virus. Given the tragic number of deaths in these facilities and the lack of transparency from the administration, there are both federal and state investigations into whether Wolf’s orders accelerated nursing home deaths. In August, the Department of Justice ordered Wolf, along with three other governors, to produce the governor orders relating to nursing homes and the number of COVID-19 positive patients that were admitted in public nursing homes. While the outcome of the federal investigation is unclear, state lawmakers are now launching their own investigation into Wolf’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes.
- On March 19, 2020, Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining businesses” to close. Wolf’s waiver process that determined which businesses were allowed to stay open was both inconsistent and non-transparent. According to a Spotlight PA article, the state refused to release “exactly what criteria it was using to consider applications, or explain to applicants why waivers were granted or denied. For weeks, it also refused to make public even the names of businesses that were approved or denied.”
— Numerous news organizations, including Spotlight PA and Philadelphia Inquirer requested waiver records under the state’s public records act. Wolf refused to answer.
— In April, a Senate committee subpoenaed Wolf to produce all notes, memos, emails, and other documents relating to the waiver process. Wolf refused to answer the subpoena and instead released the lists of businesses who had applied for waivers and a list of businesses that had received the waiver. Wolf did not publish the criteria that his administration used to process waiver applications.
— The night before publicly releasing the list of waiver recipients, the state suddenly revoked several waivers that it had previously granted. The waivers were revoked with no explanation.
— Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who conducted an audit of Wolf’s waiver program, said that the “waiver program appears to be a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners.” The audit found that over 500 businesses had their waiver status changed throughout the course of the pandemic.
- While Wolf imposed strict capacity limits and closing hours for Pennsylvanian restaurants and bars throughout the pandemic, his administration was not transparent on “the science” that justified those orders. While the Wolf administration insisted that restaurant and bar restrictions were based on data, the governor did not support his claim until Brian Sheehan of CBS21 did a six-part reporting series on “Where’s the Data?”. When the Wolf administration finally released their data, it revealed that less than 3% of COVID-19 positive individuals reported visiting a restaurant with the 14 days prior to showing symptoms. The connection between COVID-19 spread and Wolf’s restaurant orders is dubious.
- The state legislature unanimously passed HB 2463, a law requiring state agencies to comply with Right-to-Know requests during a declared emergency. Wolf threatened to veto the bill several times, criticized it as “thoughtless and foolish”, and eventually allowed the bill to pass into law—but without his signature.
— Before HB 2463 was passed, Wolf allowed the executive branch agencies to indefinitely stop processing responses to Right-to-Know requests.
— Even after the transparency bill was passed into law, the Wolf administration has used the 1955 Disease Prevention and Control Act to deny several news organization’s requests for coronavirus-related information.
- Governor Wolf left Pennsylvanians in the dark about the confusing “metrics” he used to decide which counties could re-open. The information that Wolf did offer was often inconsistent and incomplete.
— State senators and local officials criticized Wolf’s reopening plan as arbitrary and non-transparent. Senator Mensch, for example, argued that it made no sense to shut down an entire county when COVID-19 cases are centered in densely populated regions. Buck County Commissioners said Wolf gave them no information on when or how they could reopen county. Local officials in Lancaster county were also frustrated by Wolf’s “lack of transparency and outreach to county-level officials.”
— At the end of April 2020, Wolf finally released his metric for reopening counties. In his address, Wolf announced that the reopening benchmark is for a county’s “population to have an average of less than 50 cases per 100,000 individuals over the course of 14 days.” The morning after Wolf’s address, his website changed the benchmark to if a county “on average for the past 14 days, had 50 or less new cases per 100,000 residents per day.” When asked about the discrepancy (two-week or per day totals), Secretary Levine could not explain why the governor’s website had incorrect information.
- Although the media and public had questions about Wolf’s pandemic leadership, Wolf went almost 11 weeks with no live press conference, from March 17, 2020 through May 29, 2020. The virtual press conferences Wolf opted for were 30 minutes or less and only answered pre-submitted questions. He did not permit the media to directly ask live or follow-up questions.
- The Wolf administration left many questions unanswered when it forgot its legal obligation to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment that would have retroactively extended the timeline for child sex abuse victims to file civil actions against their abusers. The state constitution requires the Department of State to advertise proposed constitutional amendments in two newspapers in every county in the months preceding the general election. Because of the DOD’s failure to do so, the amendment did not appear on the ballot in May 2020 and will not until at least 2023.
— Although Secretary Kathy Boockvar resigned after the mistake was exposed, Spotlight PA reports that “in the days that have followed, the Wolf administration has declined to provide additional details of exactly what occurred, how it happened, who else was responsible for the error, and whether any other disciplinary action or terminations had resulted.”
— Lawmakers are pressuring Governor Wolf to release the inspector general’s full investigative report on the Department of State’s mistake when the investigation is complete.
- Throughout the pandemic, the Wolf administration’s antiquated unemployment compensation system was riddled with delays and fraud. Criminals behind bars were able to game the system while workers who lost their job because of pandemic restrictions had to wait months for a payment.
— Pennsylvania is still using 1970s technology to process unemployment claims, despite a 2017 audit that deemed the computer system “woefully outdated.” Although the state began a multi-million dollar project to modernize the system in 2005, the system update was routinely delayed. The state says they pushed the long-planned upgrades to June 8th, because of the high volume of unemployment claims coming in during the pandemic.
— In May 2020, widespread unemployment compensation scams affected at least 53,000 to 58,000 people in Pennsylvania. In September 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry had to delay Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments due to a sudden 300% increase in unemployment applications. Around 10,000 state prison inmates were able to illegally apply for unemployment compensation during the pandemic, costing Pennsylvania taxpayers approximately a quarter-billion dollars.
— Pennsylvanian workers that lost their jobs during the pandemic had to wait months before receiving checks. In April, bottlenecks were delaying nearly 1.6 million unemployment claims in Pennsylvania. By June, the state had paid only 15% of unemployment claims. Pennsylvanians report that when they reach out to ask about missing unemployment checks, staff at the Department of Labor and Industry do not answer the phone. Amanda Ewing, for example, says she called 2,000 times per day and still could not get through.
— Despite the dismal failures of Pennsylvania’s unemployment system to process legitimate unemployment claims, Governor Wolf actually praised Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak for his leadership and work during the pandemic.
- Under Wolf’s leadership, Pennsylvania’s initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout was frustrating for healthcare providers and patients alike.
— From the start, Pennsylvania officials created confusion by suddenly expanding vaccine eligibility without having enough vaccines available in the state.
— Doctors were outraged when Wolf then removed primary care physicians as eligible COVID-19 vaccine administrators, stressing that they are trusted sources of medical advice and support for their patients.
— In February, state officials announced that thousands of vaccines were improperly given. Over 100,000 Pennsylvanians were either directly affected by the improper doses or had their initial dose delayed as a result. WPXI reports that “despite a pledge for more transparency the state wouldn’t say which providers made the mix-up.”
— In March 2021, officials in four Southeast Pennsylvania counties called on the Wolf administration for more transparency concerning the state’s vaccine distributions. The joint statement said “There remains a lack of transparency on the total doses that have come to our counties from every source. Therefore, we have no way to assess how the data presented to us today was calculated… Additionally, we were not given any indication of the plan to make up acknowledge shortfalls to certain counties going forward.”
- Under the Wolf administration, the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) made an error that undercharged 100,000 teachers and school employees and overcharged taxpayers by $25 million. The error occurred because of erroneous data that exaggerated the pension funds’ profits.
INCOME, JOBS, AND POPULATION GROWTH SINCE 2014
- Since Wolf’s first term, Pennsylvania has underperformed in regards to income, job and population growth. From 2015 through 2020, the state has ranked middle to low growth in comparison to other states in the nation.
— Between 2015 and 2020, personal income in Pennsylvania increased by 23.38%. The state is ranked 21st out of the 50 states.
— Employment decreased 3.99% since 2015, which ranks Pennsylvania 38th in employment growth in the nation.
— Pennsylvania’s population decreased by 0.01% since 2015, putting the state at 40th place in the nation for population growth.
— According to an IFO report, Pennsylvania’s cumulative population growth between 2010 and 2019 is 0.78%. The US average for growth during the ten-year period is 6.31%. In the region, only New York and West Virginia have slower population growth rates.
— Since Wolf took office in 2015, Pennsylvania has lost 161,815 residents to other states. In 2019, Pennsylvania lost 19,588 residents to domestic migration, or almost 54 people per day.
 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, State and Area Employment, Hours, and Earning, All Employees in Thousands, Seasonally adjusted, Accommodation and Food Services”, 2020
 Bureau of Economic Analysis, Annual Personal Income and Employment by State, “Personal Income, Population, Per Capita Personal Income, Disposable Personal Income, and Per Capita Disposable Personal Income (SAINC1/SAINC51)”, 2015 through 2019.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “State and Area Employment, Hours, and Earnings”, Total Non Farm, All Employees in Thousands, Not Seasonally Adjusted, 2015 through 2019.
 US Census Bureau, Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019
 US Census Bureau, Annual Population Estimates, Estimated Components of Resident Population Change, and Rates of the Components of Resident Population Change for the United States, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019