HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf used his inaugural address Tuesday to encourage cooperation between the political parties to solve a looming fiscal crisis.
The Democrat laid out broad goals while again warning of a $2.33 billion budget gap and acknowledging the need to work closely with the Republican-controlled Legislature to solve it.
“I ran for governor because I refuse to be part of the first generation of Pennsylvanians forced to tell their kids that they need to go somewhere else to succeed,” he said.
Wolf has argued that the severity of the budget problem ought to spur lawmakers on both sides to find common ground.
“We need to work together, and we need to get started,” he said.
“We have to respect each other’s ideas.”
In his speech, the millionaire businessman from York noted that he hopes to provide Pennsylvanians with “jobs that pay, schools that teach and government that works.”
An audience of about 2,000 people included state officials and legislators, some of whom noted that Wolf's speech reflected the type of rhetoric that's typical of inaugurations.
“There’s not anything there to disagree with,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County.
It will be easier to judge Wolf's plans once the new governor lays out more specific priorities in a March 3 budget address to the Legislature, Yaw said.
Wolf then will likely focus on a new tax on the gas drilling industry, unless he reverses course on the promises made on the campaign trail.
Wolf won the Nov. 3 election, beating Republican incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, having campaigned heavily on the promise that he will tax gas drillers and use the proceeds for public education. The position has proven controversial to liberals and conservatives.
On Tuesday, a group of more than 100 demonstrators near the outdoor inauguration chanted, “Ban fracking now.” Their protest was clearly audible at the ceremony. At least three were escorted from the grounds after chanting and blowing whistles in the stands.
“To the protesters here today, I say: help me develop these opportunities in a way that is clean, safe and sustainable,” Wolf said in a brief acknowledgement of the group.
Their criticism of fracking and Wolf's plans to tax it might be amplified in light of the New York state’s recent decision to ban the practice common in the Marcellus Shale region.
Pennsylvania already collects an impact fee on gas wells.
Wolf's plan would peg a tax to the amount of gas those
Democratic lawmakers suggested they’d favor Wolf’s plan for an extraction tax, so long as it doesn’t tax the industry more heavily than neighboring states.
“It’s an industry we need to grow,” said state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence.
“We can’t tax them out of Pennsylvania.”
In facing those concerns, Wolf must also navigate questions over how much his tax will generate, said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.
Most estimates suggest it will bring the state about $600 million a year. Ahead of the election, Wolf said it could generate $1 billion.
Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Lawrence, said he doesn’t think there will be much support in the Legislature for increasing taxes on drilling.
Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, agreed that there’s no reason to believe the Legislature will embrace it.
“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said.
While the governor and lawmakers agree that they face daunting challenges, there was room for optimism in Harrisburg on Tuesday.
Wolf took the oath of office after musical performances from a marching band from York County and choirs from Pittsburgh and Chester, near Philadelphia.
Four former governors
– Democrat Ed Rendell and Republicans Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Corbett – attended the ceremony. Wolf served as Rendell’s revenue secretary and the new governor has tapped several former Rendell officials to join his Cabinet.
Gordner said it was encouraging to note Wolf’s appointment of former Secretary of Environmental Protection Katie McGinty as his chief of staff. McGinty was “engaging and responsive to members of the Legislature" when she led the agency, he said.
Those skills will be needed as the new governor tries to iron out compromises.
State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, said he thinks Wolf is striking the right tone and has good chances of finding compromise with Republican leaders in the Legislature as he begins work.
“I feel good," Barbin said.