Gov. Tom Wolf on COVID policies: ‘I’m going to be second-guessing myself until the day I die’
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — As he prepares to leave office, Gov. Tom Wolf says he’s still turning over in his mind the decisions he made during the first, tumultuous months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to be second-guessing myself until the day I die,” Wolf, a two-term Democrat, said during a live public interview with Spotlight PA on Thursday.
Wolf’s administration has been marked by conflict with the GOP legislature, record numbers of vetoes and executive orders, and major updates to the commonwealth’s marijuana and election laws. But looking back over his record, Wolf agreed one of his defining moments came at the start of the pandemic as states rushed to lock down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Wolf’s administration decided to make Pennsylvania one of few states that would decide on its own which categories of businesses would close and which would remain open. The quickly-formed system required that all businesses shutter, except for those considered “life-sustaining” — a group that frequently changed. Businesses ordered to close, many of which were devastated by financial losses, were able to apply for waivers to reopen.
That created a vastly unequal and inconsistent system, and put government bureaucrats in the position of making decisions that could decide if a business ultimately survived or went under. The problems were documented in several Spotlight PA investigations at the time, and they were criticized by business owners, Republicans, and some Democrats as chaotic.
The problems, combined with controversies around mask requirements and other COVID-19 polities, ultimately led the House and Senate, and voters in the state, to approve two constitutional amendments limiting the governor’s authority to order states of emergency.
In the interview, Wolf conceded things could have gone better, and he said a state auditor general review that found the waiver program to be inconsistent and unfair was “right on the mark.”
“I tried to be as transparent as possible,” Wolf said. He added that while the waiver program was flawed, he always intended it as a way for people to interact directly with the government.
“I never played politics,” he said, “I tried to do what was right.”
In response to Spotlight PA questions, Wolf named his biggest accomplishments while in office as investing in public education, lowering the rate of uninsured Pennsylvanians, rebuilding the commonwealth’s rainy day fund, and reducing incarceration rates.
There are other things he wishes he was able to do, he said, such as raising the minimum wage, passing a nondiscrimination law that covers LGBTQ people, taxing the gas industry more aggressively, and figuring out how to fund roads and bridges without the state’s record high gas tax.
Wolf also said that while his successor, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, is very different from him, he’s extremely confident in the future of the executive office.
“He’s not a Tom Wolf,” Wolf said. “I think he’s better than Tom Wolf, and I think Pennsylvania is going to be served very well with him at the helm.”
WHILE YOU’RE HERE... If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.