Gov. Wolf keeps low profile on Pa. budget

Wolf Consolidating Agencies
Gov. Wolf has kept a low profile throughout the state’s budget impasse

HARRISBURG — Over the last six weeks, Gov. Wolf has cut a pair of ribbons; hosted nearly a dozen round-table meetings and discussions on everything from tech jobs to protecting senior citizens from fraud; toured businesses; and signed a half-dozen bills, his public schedule shows.

None of the events dealt with balancing the state budget.

As the battle over how to pay for Pennsylvania’s nearly $32 billion spending plan drags into its fifth week, the Democratic governor is trying a new tactic: near-invisibility.

Wolf hasn’t issued any big public warnings about the dangers of not having a timely budget, as he did in the past two years. Nor has he expressed even the slightest frustration over the breakdown in talks with the Republican-controlled legislature. He hasn’t been spied walking into legislative offices or convening meetings with legislative leaders in the executive offices, either.

Both House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) have complained over the last few weeks that the governor has been disengaged.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of interaction with him directly for several months now,” Reed told reporters as he raced back and forth between offices during the thick of negotiations last month.

One thing is clear: Wolf has changed his approach, and people in the Capitol have noticed.

Wolf has said that he doesn’t negotiate in public, and that he remains available to meet with legislative leaders. “Gov. Wolf made it clear that he would not engage in negotiating through personal attacks and public browbeating,” spokesman J.J. Abbott said in a statement.

In 2015, Wolf’s first year in office, the governor openly clashed with Republicans who control both legislative chambers, starting with a fiercely Democratic agenda of increased education spending and a new energy tax. The result was a historic and bruising impasse that held up funding for public schools, and for nonprofits that provide social services to the poor.

It cost him. When the governor emerged from what ended up being a very public fight in the spring of 2016, his job approval stood at 31 percent in Franklin and Marshall College polling. His standing had stabilized at about 40 percent in the college’s May survey. A Morning Consult poll last month pegged Wolf’s approval rating at 48 percent.

This year, the governor has delegated negotiating work to his top staff, led by his relatively new chief of staff, Mike Brunelle, according to several people involved in talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the closed-door process. Wolf himself has largely stayed out of the fray, instead choosing to call certain legislative leaders for private discussions.

“I think he’s played it low-key intentionally,” said pollster and political science professor G. Terry Madonna, noting that few voters pay attention to every twist and turn of the budget process.

“The average Jane and Joe is not invested in this at all,” he said. “So why should he risk getting involved in needless controversies when he’s not getting any public pressure? In some ways, it’s fairly shrewd what he’s doing.”

Indeed, as budget negotiations drag on, Wolf has spent much time lashing President Trump and congressional Republicans. He has sent several fundraising appeals, for instance, based on his opposition to the GOP-led effort to repeal Obamacare.

“I’m calling on Congress to join the Democratic and Republican governors who are working to strengthen the Affordable Care Act to stabilize markets, lower costs, and make critical coverage available to more Americans,” read a campaign email circulated on Sunday, asking supporters to chip in $5 or more “to make sure I have the resources to fight back and protect care for Pennsylvanians.”

The governor’s campaign in recent weeks has also highlighted Wolf’s refusal to turn over state voter information to a commission Trump created to investigate his unsupported claim that millions of illegal votes were cast against him in last year’s election.

Steve Crawford, the former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, said last week that the budget fight in Harrisburg is really a fight between the Republican-controlled House and Senate. For Wolf to wade into that would be senseless.

“You’ve got two grizzly bears fighting each other, and the last thing you want to do is get in there and break that up,” said Crawford, now the managing vice president of the lobbying firm S.R. Wojdak & Associates.

They’ve sparred over everything from tax hikes, to expanding gambling in the state, to further privatizing liquor sales, emerging from talks looking tired and frustrated.

The Senate, where Republicans have historically been more moderate than their counterparts in the House, has even seemed to form an unspoken alliance with the Wolf administration to push through a revenue deal. Late last month, senators passed a package of bills that contained some items the Democratic governor doesn’t want, but many that he does — including a new tax on natural gas drillers.

Enacting a new natural gas severance tax was one of Wolf’s top campaign promises when he ran for governor in 2014.

Abbott, Wolf’s spokesman, pointed to that development as an example of how the governor’s lower-key approach has yielded results.

Still, the House hasn’t committed to even begin debating it.

In fact, looking around the Capitol these days, it would be easy to think there is no problem. The hallways are empty, even of lobbyists who congregate in the ornate rotunda when talks are ongoing. Leaders and staffers who have been key to negotiations are on vacation, some for weeks.

Faced with that reality, neither Wolf nor members of his administration will answer questions about contingency plans for a prolonged stalemate. Some Republicans argue that he has little choice but to freeze spending until there’s a revenue package in place that will fill a deficit of more than $2 billion — a move that, heading into an election year, could chip away at his popularity.

Wolf and his administration have taken the position that the impasse doesn’t affect their authority to spend. But state Treasurer Joe Torsella has warned that the state could run out of money to pay its bills as early as the end of this month. And credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s has said the state could face another downgrade if it does not fix its deficit-riddled finances.

“The budget is a huge, huge constitutional priority,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans. “The governor has been traveling the state, basically doing feel-good things. Some might say you should question his priorities.”