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'Seize the moment': Wolf talks about his legacy and sets table for budget speech in Pittsburgh

Gov. Tom Wolf, flanked by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, speaks at the Energy Innovation Center on January 20, 2022.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Gov. Tom Wolf, flanked by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, speaks at the Energy Innovation Center on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Gov. Tom Wolf came to Pittsburgh Thursday morning on a visit whose timing seemed prompted in part by his upcoming final budget speech, but even more by an effort to polish his legacy for his final year in office. At times, the two-term incumbent’s speech sounded like the kind of address a seated governor might give if he weren’t barred by term limits from seeking another four years.

“I get a lot of bad press because I’m not a showboat,” Wolf said near the outset of at at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District. “In politics, that’s not necessarily a good thing because you maybe don’t get people to understand and see what great things have happened. But a lot of good things have happened over the last seven years, and today I’m going to start taking some credit for it.”

At the core of Wolf’s argument for his legacy was his administration’s fiscal management. He noted that the state’s current tax revenues were $1.5 billion above projections for this point in the fiscal year, and he said the state’s “rainy day fund” — money set aside for budget emergencies — stood at nearly $3 billion. That’s a significant improvement from where the fund was just a few years ago when it contained enough money to cover the state’s costs for about seven hours of operations.

This is the first time in many decades that we have been in such a good place financially,” Wolf said. “In fact — now I am bragging here, I apologize for that — but I'm going to be the first governor since Dick Thornburgh back in the '80s to pass on a budget surplus to my successor.”

By some estimates, including that of an independent state fiscal overseer, current trends suggest Pennsylvania will return to budget deficits by the 2023-24 budget year. But Wolf suggested the state had turned a corner and those policy decisions had created long-term prosperity.

While a strong economy helped Pennsylvania, he said, “We’ve done this by making smart investments,” such as a decision to expand Medicaid with aid from the federal Affordable Care Act.

“These things are happening financially because of that progressive agenda," he said.

The state has lagged in some key economic indicators, including a 5.7 percent unemployment rate that is above the national average. But Medicaid expansion has arguably helped the state to drive down the percentage of uninsured residents to around 5.5 percent — well below the national average.

Such mixed indicators aside, Wolf’s remarks Thursday seemed to set up a forceful final budget address next month, the last one he will give as governor. A key message of that speech, he said, would be: “We need to continue to pay our bills.” The phrase clearly was speaking to broader obligations than a balanced budget, such as an ongoing effort to increase public education funding.

You can't not invest in people and expect to get to a good place financially," he said. "We have a really bright future in a way that we didn't have just seven years ago.”

We can't rest on our laurels,” he concluded. “We are in a unique situation right now to set the Commonwealth up for a bright, bright moment, [a] bright future, and we need to seize the moment.”

It remains to be seen how that will fly in Harrisburg, where the legislature has long been in the hands of Republicans and Democratic priorities have idled for years.

Among those items is gun-violence prevention, a cause whose importance was driven home in Pittsburgh by the shooting death of 15-year-old Marquis Campbell outside Oliver Citywide Academy on Wednesday.

Wolf, who called the shooting “senseless” and “tragic,” was set to address gun violence at an event in Philadelphia Thursday afternoon. He told Pittsburgh reporters briefly about his efforts to fund gun-violence prevention efforts at the community level, “with ideas as to how we can say, ‘Let’s not do this.’”

More broadly, he said, “The disadvantaged, marginalized communities suffer the most from gun violence. They also suffer the most from underfunding in education, from housing issues, from food security, all those things. So I think this is a wake-up call for all of us.”

But Wolf gave little sign that there would be much help from Harrisburg on issues such as gun laws. He noted that he supported efforts by Mayor Bill Peduto to try to pass local laws to more strictly regulate gun possession.

But those efforts have been foiled by state Republicans, who have passed laws barring firearm rules at the local level. When asked if he would pursue efforts to change that landscape in his final year in office, Wolf answered no.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.