What can Tom Wolf do?

Wolf First Year
That’s Gov. Wolf last March during a joint session of the state legislature: He’s probably not smiling now.

SITTING IN the gallery above the state House floor listening to Gov. Wolf's budget address two weeks back, I wrote myself a note in the margins of his speech.

I wrote, in capital letters, "WHAT NOW?"

Two weeks later, I can't find an answer.

Nobody seems to have a starter for the now-eight-months-stalled state budget, and the new budget message sure didn't help.

Wolf's speech angered and annoyed many members of the Republican legislature (who already were angered and annoyed) because it re-served stuff, including taxes, that they couldn't stomach last year.

And Wolf's jab that they should find other jobs was viewed as KO-ing possibilities that peace could be at hand.

So this week, lawmakers start hearings on a new budget without a current budget in an environment best described as venomous.

Pennsylvanians, normally numb to state doings, might be starting to pay attention. The latest Franklin and Marshall College poll says 67 percent of registered voters see the state "on the wrong track."

That's the highest number since the poll started asking the question 20 years ago.

Seems like a good time for some sort of reset.

News last week that top Wolf aide John Hanger is out might help. But then, news last summer that top Wolf aide Katie McGinty was out didn't help.

Both did more to irk Republicans than advance Wolf's agenda. But now it seems Wolf needs no help when it comes to irking Republicans.

He came to office with firm intentions and sweeping plans to improve a state routinely ranked among the nation's worst-run states. I suspect that in Year One he found out why that is.

In his second year, he faces glum realities: Lawmakers loathe to raise taxes are doubly loathe to do so in an election year; and nobody's buying Wolf's state-in-crisis pitch until schools start closing or somebody dies for lack of some state service.

(This crisis stuff, by the way, gets dicey. Last year, Wolf said we had to act to fight a $2.3 billion deficit. This year, he said we had to act to fight a $2 billion deficit. Some are arguing that doing nothing is fighting the deficit.)

What can Wolf do?

Cave and push for a maintenance budget? No new taxes, no big new education dollars? Not likely.

"He's not content with doing nothing," says T.J. Rooney, a consultant, Wolf ally, and former head of the state Democratic Party. "He's incapable of throwing in the towel."

But as long as Wolf insists on more for schools and a reasonable run at the deficit with new taxes, that means ongoing fights, more of the same.

Wage political jihad? Go after incumbent GOP lawmakers to alter the makeup of the legislature?

Maybe a bit. But:

Despite a few Wolfian efforts aimed at a few seats, "there just aren't that many opportunities to change the legislature in ways he thinks it needs to be changed," says consultant Alan Novak, a former state GOP chairman.

Candidate filings for office back Novak. Based on who's running where, there appears little chance for much change. Wolf's top legislative antagonist, for example, House Speaker Mike Turzai, has no opposition this year.

Political self-inoculation?

"I think he'll do things a governor can do," a Wolf adviser says. "Sign popular bills and executive orders. Be out and be active."

This includes traveling the state, telling schools and stakeholders that when bad things happen, it's the legislature's fault, I did what I could, it's on them.

Some groundwork is in place for this. An F&M poll last month says voters blame lawmakers more than Wolf for the budget mess, by a 20-point margin.

As for me, I'm writing myself a note for a future column based on a famous existentialist play featuring three people (I'll make it House, Senate, and Wolf) in hell - Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.


baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer