Gov. Tom Wolf took office last Tuesday and immediately got to work.
The new governor quickly banned gifts for the executive branch and waded into his first public battle with Republican lawmakers when he recalled former Gov. Tom Corbett’s last-minute nominations and removed the chief of the Office of Open Records.
Wolf also reiterated in his inaugural address he wants to make schools a priority, and PA Independent took a closer look at the man tasked with helping the governor achieve his ambitious education agenda.
Here’s a look back at those stories and more from Wolf’s first week in Harrisburg:
Open records chief defies Wolf’s decision to fire him
Wolf said he would be a different type of governor, and Thursday he provided some evidence that will be the case while setting up what could turn into a protracted legal battle.
The new governor recalled 28 of Corbett’s last-minute nominations and removed the chief of the Office of Open Records that Corbett appointed just 11 days before leaving office.
“We must work to make sure every Pennsylvanian has good reason to trust the government that serves them, and these are the types of actions that make people legitimately distrust their government,” Wolf said in a statement.
The fallout from Wolf’s move will linger. Erik Arneson, the man Wolf removed as executive director of the Office of Open Records, believes the governor doesn’t have the power to fire him, insinuated legal action to come and still reported to work Friday.
“There’s no way to describe this other than to call it a nuclear attack on the independence of the Office of Open Records,” Arneson said.
Challenges piled high for new PA secretary of education
Wolf is counting on Pedro Rivera to usher in a fresh start for Pennsylvania’s Department of Education.
Rivera was nominated to be the commonwealth’s next secretary of education earlier this week and, pending Senate approval, he will immediately face a pile of pressing problems plaguing Pennsylvania schools.
Wolf placed supreme importance in bolstering education spending throughout his campaign and reaffirmed that position again as he took office this week in Harrisburg.
Rivera served as the superintendent of the Lancaster School District since 2008 and spent 13 years as a teacher and administrator in Philadelphia before that.
“He’s not an old hand,” said James Paul, senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation. “So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens because education is going to be such a big issue.”
High price of free tuition goes beyond dollars and cents
Free tuition will be expensive.
President Obama in Tuesday night’s State of the Union discussed offering interested students free community college tuition. Obama first made the announcement in a Facebook video recorded on Air Force One two weeks ago and offered few initial details for the plan, other than saying it would be part of the speech.
The program, America’s College Promise, could cost taxpayers at least $60 billion over 10 years, according to the White House. But the monetary hit may only be a fraction of its cost.
Does No Child Left Behind nurture a culture of cheating?
With millions in federal money and jobs at stake, has No Child Left Behind created an incentive for teachers to cheat on standardized tests?
The high-stakes testing required by NCLB has been one of the most controversial elements of the federal law, passed in 2001. Those tests are meant to measure students’ academic growth, but, increasingly, they’ve been used as a yardstick for teachers and administrators. Some opponents of the high-stakes testing argue it has created a toxic culture that incentivizes cheating, deception and fraud.
Wolf’s first executive order targets gifts
There will be no freebies for the executive branch under Wolf.
After taking the oath of office and delivering his inaugural address, Wolf signed his first executive order, which bans executive branch officials and employees from accepting gifts. Good-government activists believe it could help state lawmakers finally pass a law banning the same practice for themselves.
“This is a significant moment and important step in setting a new ethical standard for Harrisburg’s political culture,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital. “This is also an invitation for the Legislature and the judiciary to follow suit and reset their moral compasses.”
State records: Businesses miss job pledges, but taxpayer money at stake
The state pours millions of dollars of economic development money into businesses that pledge to bring jobs to their region, but that doesn’t guarantee taxpayers get a good return on their investment.
In fact, a recent audit and further examination of records form the Department of Community and Economic Development found recipients often miss their job creation and retention pledges, leading the state to seek reimbursement or jack up interest rates on loans.
Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, said the cost of the incentives drives up taxes elsewhere and makes the state less competitive.
“Press conference politics” keep the state pumping out the money, Benefield said. Ribbon-cuttings make for good headlines, regardless if a negative audit could come in the future.
“Those are the things that get headlines and draw praise,” Benefield said. “So, the political incentive of providing grant funding alone and saying that, ‘Hey, we created this job at this location,’ it’s good politics. It may not be good economics.”
Facility aide charged in sexual assault of 15-year-old resident
A former aide at a facility for court-adjudicated boys in western Pennsylvania has been charged with 11 counts related to sexual assault of a 15-year-old resident. She is charged with having sex with the teenager, as well as sending him sexually explicit pictures and texts to a phone she bought him.
“By virtue of his age he was innocent and was a victim,” her lawyer told Watchdog.org. “It was improper,” but “it was definitely consensual.”