Lawmakers Return To Governor’s Fall ‘Conversation Openers’
Gov. Tom Wolf busied himself in the quiet Capitol over the summer with plans that didn't involve lawmakers: a way to finance new voting machines, new charter school regulations to write, gun violence prevention programs to create and more.
With lawmakers returning to Harrisburg from a nearly three-month break this past week, Wolf called those moves "conversation openers" to inject momentum into a second-term agenda the Democrat insists can get done this fall in an often-skeptical Republican-controlled Legislature.
"The executive orders are because I have the authority and because in conversations with the General Assembly there seems to me a real possibility that we can continue the conversation and get things done in a legislative way," Wolf said in an interview Tuesday after meeting with House and Senate leaders. "So I'm signaling that I'm not going to sit around. We need to do things, and I get the sense that's the way it's being received by all four caucuses in the two chambers."
That might be true, even if Republicans aren't thrilled with the governor's moves, and Wolf may not be done.
His administration suggested this week that Wolf will consider unilaterally pursuing limits on greenhouse gas pollution from power plants — a nod to his agenda to fight climate change — if he can't persuade lawmakers into an agreement.
Meanwhile, the administration has another regulation pending to make hundreds of thousands of additional salaried employees eligible for overtime pay, as Republicans block Wolf-backed legislation for a fifth straight year to raise Pennsylvania's minimum wage.
For now, interviews with GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans suggest that attitudes didn't change over the summer toward top Wolf priorities left hanging in June: a minimum wage increase and a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling to pay for infrastructure and development projects.
Wolf has thus far not followed through on July's vow to issue $90 million in bonds for voting machines, without legislative approval of money to repay the bonds. Rather, talks toward a compromise with lawmakers are revolving around what sort of changes to voting laws might be attached to it.
House Republicans are moving on gun issues, following calls for action amid a burst of violence in Philadelphia and the wounding of six city police officers.
Bills up for committee votes won't advance prescriptions that Wolf has sought — such as an expansion of background checks or requiring gun owners to report stolen or lost firearms.
Rather, the bills toughen penalties for people who use firearms in crimes and more swiftly order guns taken away from someone who was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.
Meanwhile, Wolf's administration is talking to top Republicans about authorizing Pennsylvania to join a regional consortium that sets a price and caps on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
It could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in cash for the state, but Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said Wolf's administration hasn't offered specifics.
"The environment is very important, global warming is very important and we're open to working with the governor to see if we can get an agreement," Corman said. Still, "we don't have a clear picture of what it would look like."
Several long-term battles — including over charter school funding and standards — will continue raging this fall, and lawmakers may find common ground on other issues, such as trying to reduce recidivism rates.
Corman and Cutler met privately with Wolf last week, perhaps giving Wolf reason to be optimistic about his priorities.
The Republican majorities Wolf is confronting are diminished from last year after Democrats flipped 17 House and Senate seats, nearly all of them in Philadelphia's increasingly liberal suburbs. But the Republican majorities are more homogenous, more conservative and firmly in control of the two chambers.
Should Wolf's top priorities stall again, it's sure to come up in next year's elections, particularly in races for the remaining Republicans in suburban Philadelphia, where issues like strengthening gun control and raising the minimum wage are popular.
Republicans, however, dismissed the idea of embracing elements of Wolf's agenda simply to save suburban Philadelphia seats.
"We have to make decisions based on good, sound policy," Cutler said. "I think that's what we did in the spring, and I think we're going to keep doing it in the fall."