Wolf's aggressive first month spurs growing list of GOP grievances ahead of budget proposal



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania state lawmakers are accustomed to all sorts popping unannounced into their Capitol offices, but it was a particularly unusual visitor that surprised Rep. Stephen Bloom.

"Next thing you know, there was Gov. Wolf standing there grinning," said Bloom, a Cumberland County Republican.

It was one of Tom Wolf's surprise visits with lawmakers that are sowing good will among the Legislature's huge Republican majorities, and the Democrat might need every drop of it after an aggressive and, at times, confrontational first month.

Already, Wolf has managed to inflame the natural gas industry, Senate Republicans and law enforcement groups, including state troopers. In a little over a week, Wolf will unveil a budget proposal in which he is widely expected to ruffle more feathers by seeking tax increases to deliver on a campaign promise to pump significant new sums of money into public schools amid a yawning structural deficit.

"I think he's trying to come out strong and project leadership from the beginning, and talk tough," said David Patti, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based business advocacy group, the Pennsylvania Business Council. "I don't know that that's well-conceived. I'm not sure it's the approach I would have advised. But it's kind of like the rookie teacher on the first day in the classroom."

Wolf spent the first month checking off campaign pledges: initiating a moratorium on the death penalty; seeking higher taxes on the natural gas industry; and undoing former Gov. Tom Corbett's plans to overhaul Medicaid and allow the natural gas industry to pursue more gas deposits beneath public lands.

It's won plaudits from Democrats, who say they are comfortable that Wolf is acting reasonably and simply doing what he said he would do.

"He won the campaign with an overwhelming mandate. Some would say it was a landslide," said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia. "He was very clear on his issues, very clear on what he stood for."

Hughes and other Democratic allies shrug off questions about whether Wolf is savvy enough to win on many policy fronts at once, not to mention lawsuits challenging his moves.

Wolf — a first-time officer holder who ran a family building-products business for much of the last three decades — is well-prepared by his executive experience and has hired senior staff with experience winning policy fights in state government, Democrats say.

Republicans grudgingly acknowledge Wolf's campaign pledges, but their list of grievances is growing.

On the list is Wolf's firing of a longtime Senate GOP aide from the new job Corbett gave him atop the Office of Open Records and Wolf seeking no input before giving a reprieve to a death row-inmate scheduled to die.

"I think the disappointing part of what I see and what other members see is the words don't match the actions" of a man who pledged a transparent administration that could rise above politics and partisanship, said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

After Wolf announced his plan to delay executions, top House Republicans compared Wolf to President Barack Obama as "a chief executive who has decided to unilaterally make public policy decisions."

Bloom and a number of other Republicans are reluctant to criticize a governor who, they say, has made the extra effort to meet with them. Meanwhile, ahead is what many worry will be a brutally difficult budget negotiation between a liberal governor and a conservative Legislature.

"I would urge him to look toward being collaborative rather than confrontational," Bloom said.

Some Republicans give Wolf the benefit of the doubt, and hope that he will see the wisdom of key GOP wants: Overhauling the state's public employee pension system and privatizing the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.

But Wolf opposed such ideas in his campaign, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, expects Wolf will draw a line in the sand over boosting education funding and funding it with a taxes increase on the natural gas industry.

That will take Republican cooperation, and Wolf is not encouraging such cooperation, Scarnati said.

"You can't unilaterally do some of the things he's doing and then have a bipartisan effort to get things done," Scarnati said. "I think he's polarized Harrisburg a bit and probably earlier than I've seen most governors polarize Harrisburg."


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.

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