Baer: Tom Wolf's double dilemma

Pennsylvania Budget
FILE / Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with media in Harrisburg, July 2017.

Gov. Wolf is in a tough place.

He’ll soon have to decide what to do with whatever lame-o revenue package the world’s worst legislative body sends him to pay for the state’s new $32 billion spending plan, part of a half-baked budget that was supposed to take effect July 1.

His choices include fighting, and risking fiscal and political pain; or going along, and risking fiscal and political pain.

This is what our state has come to. Let’s review.

On one hand, Wolf didn’t create the mess. It festered for years. On the other hand, things aren’t better under his watch.

In 2010, after eight years of Gov. Ed Rendell, the financial news service 24/7 Wall St. ranked Pennsylvania the 22nd best-run state. Not great, not ghastly.

By 2014, after four years of Gov. Tom Corbett, the state ranked 36th. Pretty big drop.

It’s currently 42nd.

Wolf could borrow one of Homer Simpson’s three phrases to get through life: “It was like that when I got here.” (The  two others are “Cover for me” and “Oh, good idea, Boss.”) Or Wolf could say, “I’ve slowed our decline.”

It’s just that neither makes a great campaign slogan for his reelection bid in 2018.

What to do?

He could fight the hapless, horrible legislature that keeps doing the same sort of sleazy fiscal things year after year and now seems poised to expand gambling, cut health care to the poor, and fake-balance the budget with big borrowing – even as the state faces credit downgrades.

There was a time the Wolfman made his unhappiness with this sort of governance known. He howled at the GOP-run legislature during his budget address last year. “If you won’t take seriously your responsibility,” he said to their faces, “then find another job.”

(Oh, if only!)

Ah, but fighting the legislature caused a nearly nine-month budget delay in 2015-16, and many schools, local governments and nonprofits suffered financially. And Wolf’s poll numbers dropped.

Since there’s no greater motivator in elective politics than declining poll numbers, Wolf changed. Changed as if there are no more full moons; changed, if you will, to a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

He stopped fighting. He introduced a Republican-style budget with lots of cuts. He signed some liquor and pension reforms. And after working with the legislature, guess what? Wolf’s poll numbers climbed.

So, he’s still making nice.

When he issued a statement last week (without facing media) that embraced the legislature’s spending plan, there was no mention of the core stuff he firmly believes can move the state forward.

Nothing about a long-sought hike in the minimum wage (we’re the only Northeast state except New Hampshire still stuck at $7.25 an hour). Nothing about a natural gas severance tax (we’re the only energy-producing state without one).

No mention of the legislature adding $15 million more to its own, already fat operating costs while cutting costs elsewhere.

No. Instead he touted the (questionable) new spending plan (passed without funding), “in the hope that we can continue to work together on a sustainable budget solution.”

He did this even though the “solution” appears to hinge on things he doesn’t really support that could put the state on even shakier fiscal ground, which in a year or so could present problems for Wolf and a possible drop in the polls.

Yet that’s where he seems headed, apparently convinced there’s less risk in continued mediocrity than in confrontation, perhaps stalemate, and a possible drop in the polls.

And when another run-up-debt, hide-our-problems budget is adopted, Wolf can nod toward lawmakers, effectively suggesting, “Cover for me,” to which his senior aides can say, “Oh, good idea, Boss.”