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Gubernatorial candidate says government is not business

Tom Wolf outlines his privatization and other philosophies after announcing run for Pa. governor

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York County's Tom Wolf is a businessman running for Pennsylvania's top government job.

He's approaching the run with what might seem a puzzling philosophy at first, considering his background.

Business is not government, and vice versa. They should not be run like each other, said Wolf, chairman and CEO of York-based building products sourcing and distributing firm The Wolf Organization Inc., doing business as Wolf.

Wolf recently shared his views on government and business with the Business Journal.

Q: You've run a business — twice now, technically — and yet you say that government shouldn't be run like one. What's the difference in your view and why do you strike that distinction?

A: Well, government has the task of doing things, a lot of things, that businesses don't have to do, like ensure a good public education for every child in Pennsylvania; roads and bridges; providing a safe environment; providing a legal system. These are public goods that by definition are outside the purview of private enterprise, so the mission of government is very different from business.

I do things in business that will make money for me, that will make a profit for my stockholders and employees, and for me in government I am doing things that should not benefit just a group of stockholders or a narrow group of interests but the broad public. So that's the first thing.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't use business-like practices — you should try to run government efficiently — but you are trying to create a different atmosphere in a democratic political system.

So I just think it is too simplistic of a parallel to say government ought to be run like a business. Government is not business. Politics should not make it into business practices — although I know sometimes it does — and a pure pursuit of profit should not be what animates government.

What do you think of Gov. Tom Corbett's privatization measures? There have been quite a few, ranging from partnerships in the transportation sector to the plan to turn management of the Pennsylvania Lottery over to a private manager and the idea to divest the state store system.

When I was Secretary of Revenue — the lottery is part of the Revenue Department — I was overall in charge of the lottery. And I was very impressed with the way that was run and the returns to citizens.

For someone who grew up in the business sector, I was very impressed with the caliber of people who were working there, their innovative thinking and the efficiency of the lottery. So I'm struggling to find any broader purpose being served by privatization.

In terms of the state stores, once again I disagree with the privatization. Are there things the state system could do to make the purchase of certain products more convenient? Quite possibly. And they have made improvements. As a customer, I've seen that.

Is privatization the only way these improvements can be done? I don't think so. I think you can be more efficient, you can do things better, that's true of any organization. But I don't see how privatization necessarily gets you to that end.

In terms of public-private partnerships, in some cases they work fine. … I think that's something the governor should look at on a case-by-case basis. In some cases that would make sense, quite possibly. In some cases, it probably wouldn't make any sense at all.

So I think there are different things here. I'm concerned that privatization becomes an end in and of itself. … If I'm governor of Pennsylvania, I'm looking for ways to make the lives of Pennsylvanians better. I'm not looking to pursue some ideological dream of making everything private, for example. I'm not sure what purpose that serves.

Are there any other specific examples of the governor maybe running the state as a business where you think it might not be in the best interests of Pennsylvania as a whole?

I've been running a business, and I depend on a lot of things that government needs to deliver on. I depend on employees who are products of a really first-rate education system. I depend on good roads, I depend on bridges that are not falling down, I depend on communities that are safe and are places where my employees, my customers and my vendors want to live. I depend on a fair legal system.

I depend on a lot of things that private enterprise cannot provide, and this is (said) as a very determined private-sector businessman. I depend on these things. And so when I see an administration that is not delivering on those things, then that is not a very business-friendly administration.

So, if one of our readers is reading this and sees you as someone with success in business and they wonder why you are a Democrat, how would you address that?

I would ask almost the reverse question. How could a good businessperson not be a Democrat? As a businessperson, I am very interested in a strong education system, I am very interested in a strong social safety net, I am very interested in an affordable health care system. I am very interested in a legal system that works and strong communities, good infrastructure and all of those things that actually make a progressive agenda. But to me, those are the things that are absolutely essential to a strong business environment.

What about the regulatory environment? Many in the business community see Democrats generally as being too heavy on regulations.

Well, first of all, I'm against really broad characterizations. I think there are some Republicans who appreciate good, honest regulations and there are some Democrats who do the same thing. There are probably some Republicans who go too far with regulations into individual lives of citizens, and Democrats who go too far, too.

I'm a Democrat. I understand that some regulations are absolutely essential. They try to get their arms around what economists call externalities that are not built into the price of things. If someone lives upriver from me and pollutes the river from which I take my drinking water, that's just not fair. That takes a regulation. So is the person who is going to pollute upstream going to be upset with the regulation? Probably. But does that make the regulation unfair? I don't think so.

If you run a business, shouldn't you have some regulations, some concern for the welfare and health of your employees? Those are regulations. They cost money. Are they unfair? I don't think so.

So I think there is a proper role for regulations. Can you go overboard with it? Yes. But my experience in business — this is my experience, I can't speak for anybody else — I think for the most part the regulations that I've had to live with have been quite reasonable. As a business owner, I do not have the sense that we are being overburdened with regulations.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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