Gov. Wolf on prisons, pensions and the taxes that shouldn't go up

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf made his annual pitch to hundreds of Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia members, then batted a few questions from us reporters, at Drexel University's Academy of Natural Sciences last night. Highlights:

Unfunded public-worker pensions: "The heart of the issue is the (estimated $50 billion-plus) unfunded liability. The Commonwealth, until last year, hadn't made full contributions in 15 years...

"We have the matrix of a good pension reform bill... I'm happy willing to sign a pension reform bill that makes it to my desk," once the Republicans who control the state capitol pass one. 

Why it's taken so long to balance pensions: "Pure politics. There are a lot of people running for governor in addition to me. Maybe their goal is to make Wolf look bad."

Tax hikes? "I'm not going to call for an increase in the personal-income tax or sales tax. We have to make sure the Commonwealth lives within its means."

On Pennsylvanians splitting their votes between parties:  "People are looking for practical solution for anxieties and worries. If they think I can do it they'll elect me." And Trump.

Killing Obamacare: "700,000 Pennsylvanians" are on Affordable Care Act plans, "63,000 for substance abuse. If he takes that away and doesnt replace it that's thousands of people I don't know what they will do...

"We have a national health care system, it's called the emergency room. You move back away from insurance, it means more uncompensated care for hospitals. For people who pay for insurance, it's a subsidy to people who don't." Which is a chaotic way to fund care, Wolf says.

"The Affordable Care Act is an important first step" toward insurance for everyone, Wolf concluded. "Keep the bones of it."

On populism and anti-government attitudes: "I'm focused on trying to get things done. So we have fewer people in that (upset) category. I will work with members of the legislature to get that done.

"This is a democracy. People are going to run against me. I ran against people. That's the way it works."

On Pennsylvanians electing the most Republican legislators since the 1950s: Even with previous (smaller) Republican majorities, "I'm proud of what we did. Increase in education funding. Fair-funding formula. Legalized medical marijuana. Medicaid expanded. Compromises... between revenue and expenditure."

On plans to close two prisons: "We have a decline in the provirison population. So it's the natural thing to do."

Business tax cuts: "We cut the corporate tax rate, and phased out the capital stock and franchise tax. Can I get some applause for that?" (The crowd clapped)

On small towns' use of free Pennsylvania State Police protection: "It's a 'free ride' that we're all paying for," from funds that are supposed to maintain the state's ailing bridges. "It takes legislation" to match services to the people who should be paying for them.

Natural gas: "We need to have a robust gas industry in Pennsylvania." When he owned Wolf Enterprises, and manufactured decking, he had to buy plastics from Texas. It would be cheaper -- you don't have to haul them as  far -- if they could be made in Pennsylvania. Cheap, local natural gas makes that possible.

With former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Trump's Secretary of Energy, "that's our competition... He will try to promote the cause of his home state." But the economics of having Pennsylvania gas close to crowded Northeast metro areas -- "the only place in the world" with supplies so close to markets -- will trump politics, boosting manufacturing here.

"The problem (with getting gas lines approved to link Marcellus Shale wells with Delaware River industry) is not at the state level. It's at the local level. A pipeline network is really important. (Under state law) the municipality has the ability to do what they think is necessary to protect its environment. (Without a shared gas extraction tax) you get Chester County saying, 'What's in it for me?'" to let Sunoco's Mariner East pipeline pass through wealthy suburbs.

"So I support a gas-severance tax. It would help the gas industry by building (public services and infastructure) in places where there is no gas."

Boosting Philadelphia school spending by $100 million: "They have new textbooks in classrooms where they went without for many years."

Jeep: "I feel like a teenager, having to ask state police for the keys. I love driving the Jeep."

Death Row: While courts keep sentencing killers to death, "there have been none executed in my administration."

On running for reelection: Whey Wolf confirmed it, the cloud applauded.  
 
Conflicts of interest for businessman-politicians: "I didn't have any problem putting my assets in a trust. I sold my company. I used my own money for stationary. I didn't take a salary. I divested myself from the private sector. I'm a now a public servant. I don't think these two sectors should interact."

President Trump should do the same: "We as citizens of the United States need to hold him accountable."

 

Later we asked: About that late prison: About an opening date for the delayed $400 million State Correction Institute Phoenix, in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, that was supposed to open in 2015: "I'm not sure," Wolf told me. "It started before I was governor. It's more than a year bey0nd schedule. John Wetzel (who heads) the Department of Corrections is working hard to make sure it actually gets back on track. I don't have a date."

Property taxes: "I am for elimination of the property tax. That is at the heart of fiscal disparities between school districts. I agree with that goal." But Bill 76 -- the ones in both Senate and House -- "have some real problems. That raises sales tax and income tax pretty dramatically. It ends exemption for food and clothing. Diapers will be taxed."

Charter schools: "We need to make sure charter schools are paying their fair share. Charter school reform is essential."

Right-to-Work: While his own company was non-union, which Wolf attributed to generous benefits and profit-sharing, "I don't understand the logic behind right-to-work," which allows union members to pull out of their organization unilaterally.

"We live in a country where the majority rules. Donald Trump won -- the Electoral College makes him President. That does not give me the right to opt out or (stop paying) my taxes. We all benefit from the infrastructure he will build. A system (that allows individuals to pull out of an elected union without a vote) is inconsistent with the free market."