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Wolf Says He Can Still Implement Agenda, Despite Firm GOP Control In House, Senate

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Chanukah celebration on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016.

Though Republicans boosted their stronghold in the state legislature as they were sworn into office Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he's used to working in a bi-partisan manner. 

Republicans now have a veto proof majority in the Senate, 34-16, and increased their margin to 39 seats in the House, 121-82.

Wolf said he doesn’t believe the stronger GOP grip on the legislature will affect his upcoming budget, nor has it forced him to adjust his priorities.

“Ironically I really haven’t,” Wolf said. “I think the people of Pennsylvania wanted me to address and challenge that status quo and that's what I've been doing. They also wanted an increase in education funding and I think there are enough people in the Republican party here who wanted the same thing.”

The governor also said he worked with Republican legislators on liquor sales reform—“the first time since Prohibition”—as well as legalizing medical marijuana and devising a fair funding formula for public education.

“Obviously there are a lot of things we disagree on but I'm hoping that we can continue to focus on places where we agree and we'll do good things for Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

One issue of ongoing disagreement is over how to reform the state’s indebted public pension system. The 2015-16 legislative session ended with a failure to pass reform.

“I'm not sure if there's a disagreement between the Senate and the House or what," said Wolf, who supported bills in the House and Senate. "When we sit down and have conversations it seems to me that that we get fairly close.” 

A major stumbling block is shifting all new state employees, teachers and lawmakers into a 401(k)-style retirement plan. Current employees and retirees would continue in their defined benefit plan.

Wolf said he's hopeful both parties can agree on change, but something has to be done. 

“We can’t kick this can down the road any longer," he said. 

In the meantime, Wolf and his administration continue to work on a 2017-18 budget proposal that he will deliver to the legislature Feb. 7.

The state is currently running a $600 million deficit six months into this fiscal year, but Wolf said that shortfall will not affect his new budget.

“Even without a deficit coming out of this year, I'd still be looking at the same thing,” Wolf said. 

He said he doesn't plan to add any broad base tax increases and he'll focus on "really tackling the bureaucracy." 

But that doesn’t mean the new budget proposal won’t see a spending increase over this year’s $31.5 billion budget despite the deficit.

“I want to avoid slashing and cutting the kind of thing that has hurt Pennsylvania families in the past, " Wolf said. "Too often when you do a sort of  across the board cuts, you affect things like education, human services most and those are things that we can least afford to cut.” 

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
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