Pennsylvania voters are being asked a relatively simple question as they decide who should be the state’s next governor.
Is the state heading in the right direction or is it in dire need of a shakeup?
Democrat Tom Wolf, the incumbent, is counting on people who think the state is doing fine. His opponent, Republican Scott Wagner, is appealing to voters who believe change is needed.
The two men, both from York County, squared off this week in the only scheduled debate of the campaign. It was moderated by “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek in front of an audience of about 1,600 people attending the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s annual dinner in Derry Township.
Wolf argued that he has been the steady hand for Pennsylvania over his nearly four years in office, citing the state’s balanced budget and a surplus this summer after starting his term with a deficit.
“Things are different now than when we started,” Wolf said in Monday night’s debate.
He is asking voters to re-elect him and stay the course, despite the uphill battle he will continue to face in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“We have a ways to go, but we’re on the right track,” Wolf said.
READY FOR A CLEANUP?
His opponent, Republican Scott Wagner, doesn’t see much happening in the state capital and believes his brand of blue-collar politics is needed to shake things up.
“Nobody wants to do any heavy lifting,” Wagner said.
Wagner, the owner of waste disposal company Penn Waste Inc., said he is ready to be the “cleanup guy” who will peel back state regulations so companies can hire more workers and increase sales. If elected, he plans to take bigger steps to reduce the state’s massive unfunded pension liability while cracking down on mass murderers through the death penalty.
Wagner pledged that, if elected, he will get more done in the first six months as governor than Pennsylvania residents have seen in 12 years.
“When I’m elected governor, if I don’t do anything in four years, I pledge to you that I will change my name to Tom Wolf,” he said.
Both candidates tried to paint their vision for Pennsylvania voters during the hour-long debate. But in a divided political climate with daily campaign attack ads and social media sparring, it is likely that many voters already knew who they planned to vote for.
If not, Monday’s performance showcased two candidates with opposing views on where Pennsylvania is and where it is going.
The mild-mannered incumbent, who has a big lead in recent polls, is content with touting a culture of ethical behavior and government transparency, where he doesn’t take a salary and has banned political gifts. He has painted Wagner as an untrustworthy candidate because of Wagner’s refusal to release his personal tax returns.
Wolf often points to his record of working with Republicans on reforms, including a pension reform bill aimed at saving money on future state and public school hires, loosening longstanding restrictions on alcohol sales and implementing a medical marijuana program. Wolf also signed a major gambling bill that paved the way for smaller satellite casinos and online gambling in Pennsylvania, among other changes.
Wagner, on the other hand, believes progress isn’t coming fast enough for Pennsylvania. And he doesn’t think the Wolf administration has done enough to “turn over every rock” on government spending, which he plans to do.
Wagner believes he is unfairly branded as the bad guy in this race because he asks a lot of questions. He said Wolf is beholden to special interest groups, including labor unions, while his campaign is backed by small individual donations and businesses who want to be treated like customers.
“I didn’t come to Harrisburg to introduce bills. I want to roll back regulations,” Wagner said.
He also supports reducing the size of the General Assembly, which Wolf opposes.
The two candidates also have battled over education spending.
Wolf maintains that he has secured an additional $1 billion more in state aid for education. But Wagner said that because Wolf did not sign three of the four budgets enacted during his term, the General Assembly should get more credit.
Meanwhile, Wolf said that if re-elected he will continue to push for a severance tax on natural-gas drillers, hoping to generate more money for education and infrastructure needs. Wagner opposes the levy because the state already has an impact fee.
WORKFORCE ISSUES CROP UP
The candidates also spent a few minutes on other business and tax issues, namely the tight labor market and the need for more skilled workers. Wagner’s answer was to roll back regulations, though he did not specify which regulations he intends to go after.
Wolf said responsible regulation makes sense. He also highlighted recent workforce development initiatives and increased funding to help grow career and technical education programs through the Department of Labor and Industry, including expanded apprenticeship programs and industry partnerships.
The gubernatorial election is Nov. 6.