Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is widely considered one of the most vulnerable governors seeking re-election in 2014. Recently, he’s begun targeting Tom Wolf, the Democrat who has become the frontrunner in a four-way Democratic primary. Since March, Wolf has led Corbett in general-election polls by between seven and 19 percentage points.
In a radio ad released April 30, 2014, Corbett’s campaign took aim at Wolf’s record when he was serving as Pennsylvania’s revenue secretary, an appointed position that handles tax collection.
Wolf was appointed to the position by then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and confirmed by the state Senate, which was in Republican hands. He served as revenue secretary from April 2007 until November 2008.
Here’s what Corbett’s ad said:
Wolf "conveniently left out of his ads that he was the state’s revenue secretary in Harrisburg. You know, the top tax collector. And Wolf was a job-killing bureaucrat. On Wolf’s watch, taxes were high, killing 100,000 PA jobs, and our unemployment went up almost 50 percent. But the real insult? Wolf is a millionaire, but he fought to increase taxes on average Pennsylvanians, including higher taxes on home heating and the sales tax. Tom Wolf: high taxes, fewer jobs."
That’s a lot of claims for a brief ad, but for this fact-check we’re going to focus on the claim that "on Wolf’s watch, taxes were high, killing 100,000 PA jobs." For claims like this one, we take into account two factors -- whether the statistics cited are accurate, and whether it’s reasonable to assign credit or blame to the target of the ad. So we’ll take this claim point by point. With this ad, the statistics quoted are reasonable, but the blame is off-base -- especially the cause of Pennsylvania's job loss.
To the extent that taxes were high, was Wolf responsible?
We won’t address whether taxes were too high in Pennsylvania, since that’s an opinion on which reasonable people can disagree. But we can judge whether Wolf bears responsibility for the state of Pennsylvania’s taxes while he was serving as revenue secretary.
First, here’s Corbett’s argument. A Corbett spokesman, Billy Pitman, noted that the Tax Foundation found Pennsylvania to have the 10th highest tax burden among states in 2007 and 2008. (The Tax Foundation is a think tank that generally has a pro-business leaning.)
Pitman said the ad was referring to some specific taxes Wolf advocated for.
"In his position as the commonwealth’s top tax collector, Secretary Wolf lobbied the legislature on behalf of the Rendell administration he served," Pitman said. Among the proposals Pitman specifically cited were an increase to the sales tax, an oil-company tax and hikes to electricity and garbage-collection taxes.
However, the ad exaggerates Wolf’s influence on the shape of tax policy in the state.
First, Pennsylvania’s tax landscape was set well before Wolf got on the job. In April 2007, corporate taxes accounted for about one-fifth of tax revenues, sales taxes accounted for about one-quarter, and personal income taxes accounted for about 55 percent.
This means that adding a percentage point to the state sales tax, as Wolf advocated, would have represented a modest increase to a levy that represented just one-quarter of the state’s overall tax revenue. The other taxes he advocated for would have had an even more modest impact on the state’s overall tax architecture.
Why does this matter? Because the ad said that "on Wolf’s watch, taxes were high." This suggests that Wolf is to blame for the state’s overall tax structure, rather than just for proposing marginal expansions. In reality, most of the state’s tax structure was already well-established before Wolf was even sworn in, so it’s a stretch to lay the blame for "high taxes" at his feet.
Second, the ad overhypes how much impact Wolf had on tax policy as revenue secretary. While Wolf certainly engaged in at least some advocacy, as the newspaper articles noted, his job duties were exclusively administrative, not policy-setting.
The secretary’s job, according to the department’s website, is to "administer the tax laws of the commonwealth in a fair and equitable manner." Raising taxes or creating new ones is up to the governor and the Legislature (which during his tenure had one chamber controlled by the Republicans).
"The revenue secretary collects the taxes and issues reports on the state's financial health, and the subjects and rates of taxation are set by state law," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "Policies dealing with economic and community development, jobs programs, taxes and other recession-fighting measures are handled by the governor and the Legislature."
Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., agreed that the ad assigned too much responsibility for setting tax policy to Wolf.
"The claims in this ad are really loose, and as is the case in almost all negative ads, very lacking in context," he said.
Was Wolf culpable in killing 100,000 Pennsylvania jobs?
We did find a basis for the ad’s claim that 100,000 Pennsylvania jobs were lost during Wolf’s tenure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed Pennsylvanians rose by 150,000 between April 2007 and November 2008.
However, the problem with this part of the claim is that it’s a stretch to blame taxes in general -- much less Wolf specifically -- for the loss of these jobs (especially their "killing," in the ad’s overheated rhetoric).
We asked Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist, how much straight-line causation we can draw between tax policy and those job losses.
"Basically none," Sinclair said, saying the much bigger factor during that period was the national economic downturn, which officially became a recession almost halfway through Wolf’s tenure.
While she acknowledged that tax policy can affect job growth, Sinclair added that "economists disagree wildly on the ‘job-killing’ effects of taxes. So, confidently drawing any line of causation is impossible. And throw in that the entire country lost about 2.3 million jobs over that period. I don't think it was the high taxes of Pennsylvania that caused the job losses."
Corbett’s ad claimed that "on Wolf’s watch, taxes were high, killing 100,000 PA jobs."
The ad has a point that Wolf, as a Rendell appointee, did at times give rhetorical support to some of the governor’s proposed tax hikes (as well as some proposed tax reductions). But the ad exaggerates the influence that Wolf, as the operational head of the state’s tax-collection department, had on crafting tax policy. Most of the state’s tax structure was set long before he took office, and most of his job was to carry out tax laws, not craft them.
Meanwhile, the ad suggests that taxes are to blame for the job losses on his watch, when in fact Wolf’s time in office coincided with the start of the national economic downturn -- a much more plausible reason for rising unemployment. We rate the claim Mostly False.