Political honeymoon ends as Wolf, Senate GOP lock horns over late Corbett nominees

Energy Associated Press

Two days after the inauguration of Gov. Tom Wolf, the pleasantries are over at the state Capitol.

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The Democratic chief executive and the Republican-controlled Senate locked horns Thursday after Wolf abruptly fired his Republican predecessor's appointee to head the state Office of Open Records and tried to stop a slew of other eleventh-hour GOP nominees.

"This is partisan politics through and through," declared Drew Crompton, a top lawyer for the Senate GOP majority. "The honeymoon is over."

Wolf said the actions of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett during the final weeks of his term contribute to a public distrust in government.

"These moves were murky and the process was anything but open and transparent," Wolf said in a statement.

Corbett announced two weeks ago that he was appointing Erik Arneson, a veteran state Senate aide who played a leading role in rewriting the Right-to-Know Law in 2008, to lead the Office of Open Records.

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Arneson called Wolf's action "a nuclear attack on the independence" of the office and said the governor was exceeding his authority. He vowed to continue showing up at work and said he has no intention of leaving before a court makes a final determination. As of Thursday, no legal action over the matter was pending.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, defended Arneson as qualified for the job and accused Wolf of showing that he "firmly places ideology above qualifications."

Crompton questioned whether Wolf has the power to remove the director of the Office of Open Records.

The office handles appeals involving a wide section of government for people who have been denied access to records. Wolf met with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, on Thursday morning and said nothing about the impending announcement, Crompton said.

The move against Arneson accompanied requests by Wolf to stop more than two dozen nominations to state boards and commissions that Corbett filed with the Senate in the days before his tenure ended Tuesday.

The nominations included four seats on the board of governors of the State System of Higher Education, which oversees the 14 state-owned universities; three seats on the state Board of Education; two Temple University trustee seats, including one for former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley; two seats on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole; and one University of Pittsburgh trustee slot.

Governors in the past have honored nominations made in their predecessors' final days, and Senate Republicans will take some time to decide whether to honor Wolf's wishes, Scarnati said. The Senate has the power to decide whether to confirm the nominees or return the paperwork for some or all of them to the governor's office, Scarnati said.

In the meantime, some Republican senators have begun expressing concerns ahead of confirmation hearings and votes over a handful of Wolf's Cabinet nominees.

In particular, western Pennsylvania Republicans said they were concerned about Wolf's nominee to lead the Department of Environmental Protection and the effect his decisions could have on the oil, gas, coal, timber and construction industries.

The nominee for environmental protection secretary is John Quigley, who led the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources from 2009 to 2011 under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Senators worry that Quigley, who also has worked for the Harrisburg-based environmental group PennFuture, is an advocate of stronger regulations of industry.

In a blog post last month about New York's decision to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing, he said the state's report on it "should add great weight to the already self-evident case for tougher, more comprehensive regulation" and for the urgent need to study fracking's impact on public health and the environment.

"Certainly a secretary that comes and wants to enforce the regulations and statutes that are on the books is appropriate, but a secretary that has their own agenda and uses those regulations to hurt an industry is not," Scarnati said. "And so I think the question will be asked: 'What's Mr. Quigley's intentions?'"

Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, defended Quigley as having an extensive background in economic development and energy development while protecting the environment.