Tom Wolf’s Wonderful World | John Baer
Gov. Wolf's new budget plan seems soft and blah enough for the state legislature to like.
My, how ambitions can change.
The Democratic governor who once argued that Pennsylvania’s world would be wonderful if only the stingy, entrenched Republican legislature OK’d a few billion dollars in new taxes now sees that world as, well, just fine, maybe even wonderful, without such taxes.
In the first budget address of his second term, Gov. Tom Wolf told a joint House and Senate session Tuesday: “This proposal asks for no new taxes.”
Yeah, he did that last year. But then, he was running for reelection. Now he’s back governing. And he was welcomed back.
The “no new taxes” line was the only line in a 27-minute speech to draw a standing ovation from members of both parties.
Well, except for a standing ovation when Wolf mentioned his wife, Frances.
Other than that, his 2019-20 budget plan, after past years of budget fights, is a whole lot of little, far from a political punching bag.
Normally critical Republicans reacted with restraint.
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler called the proposal “a series of ideas I believe House Republicans can find agreement on.” Senate GOP leader Jake Corman said, “There’s a lot there we can support ... at least generically.”
House Speaker Mike Turzai called it positive and pragmatic. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said he liked Wolf’s tone, message, and direction.
That’s because the plan is soft and blah and absent of any ideological reach for the stars, or even the ceiling. Which, for many in Harrisburg, is just plain fine, maybe even wonderful.
(Wolf’s recently renewed Groundhog Day-like request for a natural gas severance tax is not part of the budget, and already has been trashed by GOP lawmakers.)
Wolf now stresses workforce development, which Republicans like, and greater coordination among government agencies to match jobs with job seekers, which you’d think everyone would like.
He said, for example, that if the Department of Community and Economic Development knows of a company needing 20 welders and the Department of Labor and Industry has a welding program, “we’re going to connect them.”
(Shouldn’t that be happening already?)
Wolf, as usual, is asking for more education spending, plus more for agriculture and (again) for a cut in the state’s 9.99 percent corporate net income tax, among the nation’s highest.
Ironically, Wolf’s much-publicized and multiyear (so far failed) ask for a hike in the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, lowest in the region, wasn’t mentioned once in his low-key, leaning-toward-yawner speech.
Bold new stuff? Not so much.
He wants the current compulsory age for school attendance to drop from 8 years to 6, and the minimum age for school dropout to increase from 17 years to 18. Doesn’t seem, you know, pacesetting. Or even necessary.
He also wants $13.8 million to raise statutory minimum salaries for teachers, school nurses, counselors, and such from $18,500 to $45,000 per year.
On one hand, Republicans can grouse this is related to teachers’ unions' pumping millions into Wolf’s campaigns, including at least $1.6 million last year.
On the other hand, it’s clearly aimed at smaller, rural districts and could appeal to many Republicans. Though some certainly will argue teacher salaries are local school-district contract issues.
And, as a colleague who covers education notes, a fifth-year teacher making, say, $46,000, might not leap for joy over a first-year teacher starting at $45,000.
In other iffy stuff, Wolf repackaged his failed attempt for municipalities without local police forces – which is most municipalities – to pay for State Police coverage.
But instead of past proposals to tax each resident $25 a year, this plan has a sliding scale based on population. It ranges from a low of $8 per person in burgs of 2,000 or less to $166 per person in municipalities of 20,000-plus.
Overall, Wolf wants $927 million in new state spending, a 2.79 percent increase. That’s paid for, administration officials say, by refinancing school construction bonds, “savings initiatives,” $120 million in new revenue from an increased minimum wage (the thinking being that people with more income pay more personal taxes and sales taxes), and $106 million from a new State Police fee.
Problem is, the fee and the wage hike are, at best, a pair of maybes.
So, come the June budget deadline, look for a shave in the spending hike but also probably political peace in Tom Wolf’s wonderful world.