Baer: The ways of Harrisburg are helping (and could hurt) Wolf's reelection

Wolf Consolidating Agencies
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Wolf says he'll nominate his insurance commissioner, Teresa Miller, to lead a new agency overseeing public health and human services programs. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The resolution of a new state budget, expected within a few weeks, will lay out a sort of political runway for Gov. Wolf’s reelection bid.

The question is: Will it be smooth, or potholed and too short?

There are varying views, even among Republican strategists. Some privately predict Wolf’s reelection. Others say the incumbent Democrat, while well-positioned now, faces a fiscal no-fly zone that could ground him in 2018.

There’s no question that Wolf is in a better place in his third year in office than he was in his first. Lessons learned.

He shifted from a grandiose progressive agenda, requiring large tax increases, to a more pragmatic approach including less spending, one largely acceptable to the GOP-controlled legislature.

As one Republican insider put it, “That first Tom Wolf would be crushed in reelection.” Another said, “The new Tom Wolf is better than the old Tom Wolf.”

The old Tom Wolf in 2015 was dubbed America’s “most liberal governor” — a label he’s clearly shedding.

Take climate change, a liberal hold-fast.

Wolf was a big supporter of President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions, and stuck with it even after the Supreme Court, in a victory for the coal industry, put it on hold. And Wolf opposed President Trump’s pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, part of Trump’s promise to “end the war on coal” and create more jobs.

But Wolf this month was not among the liberal governors – California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Washington’s Jay Inslee – who publicly pledged to push the Paris goals despite the withdrawal.

And last week, Wolf cut the ribbon to open a new coal mine in Somerset County (which Trump carried by a 3-1 margin), an event that included praise from Trump in a video appearance.

Hey, things change.

Meanwhile, some hard-core Republicans complain that the legislature is helping Wolf.

As lawmakers last week passed a pension reform bill that begins to address, after years of inaction, the state’s huge pension problems, a GOP campaign consultant told me the legislature was handing Wolf a second term.

Wolf can run on, and run ads about, dealing with long-unresolved issues such as liquor and pension reform, and making medical marijuana legal, all while delivering on his priority of increased funding for schools.

No matter that it was the GOP pushing pension and liquor legislation, Wolf can and will take credit, even if the boast is limited to stressing his ability to work with the legislature in rare bipartisan fashion.

The big unknown, however, is where the state goes from here.

Finances are bleak. There’s a $1 billion-plus hole in the current budget. There’s a looming deficit in the $3 billion range. And Auditor General Gene DePasquale and Treasurer Joe Torsella just warned lawmakers that without significant new revenue, the state could be forced to borrow billions just to stay in business.

So the way in which a new budget, due July 1, addresses fiscal needs, and (more important) how much of it is pasted together to push problems into next year, could prove problematic for Wolf.

The plan seems to be to get a budget done soon, without big new taxes, but relying on lots of new gambling revenue, and more steps toward booze privatization, some government cost cuts, and the usual razzle-dazzle of political math to give the appearance of a solution.

But continued slides into further debt in a state ranked worst for jobs in the Northeast, and among the 10 worst in the nation, could give any Wolf opponent some decent talking points.

Lots can happen to affect the 2018 election between now and then. Who knows, for example, what (if anything) Trump or Washington will do to help or harm the economy?

For the moment, the ways of Harrisburg favor Wolf’s reelection. It’s just that the ways of Harrisburg, let’s just say, aren’t always reliable.