HARRISBURG – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf is harshly critical of Pennsylvania’s relatively slow job creation rate under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, but meeting Wolf’s first-term goal of making the state a leader in job growth will be a tall order.
For one thing, Pennsylvania has led other states in the past 20 years only when the rest of the country is doing poorly, according to nonseasonally adjusted federal job statistics assembled by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
Corbett’s track record isn’t much different than Pennsylvania’s historically slow economic growth over the last 20 years, and economists point to a handful of reasons to explain why. But don’t tell that to Wolf.
Wolf, in an interview last week with the Associated Press, expressed confidence that, with his experience successfully guiding his family owned cabinet and furniture distributor for the past three decades, he can harness Pennsylvania’s resources to stoke economic growth that puts most other states in the rear-view mirror.
“What I can promise (is) that I will work really hard with the assets that Pennsylvania has to make sure that, however the country is doing, we’re going to be performing at the top of the ranks, not at the bottom of the ranks,” Wolf said. “I don’t know if that’s seventh or eighth or 10th or first, but we’ll be at the top of the charts.”
It would be a remarkable feat.
Only once since the 1990s has Pennsylvania ranked in the top 10 – in 2010, when Pennsylvania was ninth, according to the school’s figures. That was at a time when many of the harder-hit, higher-growth states were recovering from the Great Recession.
Last year, Pennsylvania ranked 48th.
Overall, Pennsylvania ranks 43rd in job growth in the last 20 years. It ranks 45th in the 3 1/2 years since Corbett became governor, and it ranked 28th in the eight years under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, though Rendell’s best three years were during the recession. Otherwise, he never did better than 35th.
In any case, economists roundly agree governors have little ability to affect their states’ short-term employment trends.
“Governors typically inherit economies, and they can’t reshape them quickly,” said Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester.
Economists list Pennsylvania’s cost of doing business as one reason for the state’s relatively slow economic growth. It has a comparatively high corporate net income tax and is in the Northeast, where the cost of living is generally higher. And it has one of the nation’s oldest populations, making its residents less likely to spend as freely as states with younger populations.
Part is also a lack of good luck.
“It has not pioneered or been part of the cutting edge mini-revolutions we’ve seen over the last 30 or 40 years,” said Kurt Rankin, an economist with PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
Looking ahead, economists are hard-pressed to pinpoint a development that could jerk Pennsylvania from the bottom rungs of states’ economic performance and to the top rungs.
The natural gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale formation – thought to be the nation’s largest natural gas reservoir – is perhaps the best chance to give Pennsylvania some upward mobility in the rankings, but even then it will not create a lot of jobs directly, Sweet said.
“There’s always hope” that Pennsylvania will become a leader in job growth, Sweet said. “But I don’t think the prospects are that good.”
Asked to distill his criticism of Corbett’s economic leadership, Wolf said Corbett lacked the vision to make Pennsylvania better. Still, Wolf stopped short of saying voters should throw him out of office if he gets elected and doesn’t make Pennsylvania a leader in job growth.
“I cannot expect to be governor for four years, accomplish nothing and leave the state as bad as it is when I found it or worse and expect that anybody is going to support me,” Wolf said. “I should be ashamed of myself.”