HARRISBURG — When the state budget wrapped up late last week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could boast that he navigated yet another budget season without any major clashes with the Republican-controlled legislature.
Instead, it was the progressives within the governor’s own party who left the state Capitol this year feeling shortchanged.
The nearly $34 billion budget bill, which Wolf has signed, contained few of their legislative priorities. Though it boosts money for public education — long one of Wolf’s priorities — it siphons money from environmental protection efforts, lacks an increase to the state’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, and strips funding for a cash assistance program that helps Pennsylvania’s poorest residents.
Democratic lawmakers, including some newly elected in a progressive wave last year, balked at some of the missing items. Though they stopped short of publicly directly criticizing Wolf and their leadership, they expressed frustration that they did not have greater input in the process, which produced a plan they believe abandons their ideals.
“I’m frustrated,” Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Philadelphia) said of Wolf’s decision to sign the budget deal. “We are hungry for debate. We are hungry to fight for the issues that we believe in and that he believes in. And I saw an opportunity to do that this year. I saw a group of Democrats both in the House and Senate who were willing to fight with him, and by him — and have his back.”
Farnese, who during the budget debate last week pleaded with Wolf to veto the deal, said the results of last year’s election showed voters in Pennsylvania endorsed the progressive platform that Wolf and other Democrats have championed. Wolf handily won a second term, as Democrats narrowed GOP majorities in the state legislature and in Congress.
“To me, he had a mandate to fight for progressive causes,” Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) said of Wolf. “I think it was a missed opportunity.”
Wolf did score some wins this year. He got legislative buy-in for changing the mandatory age for school attendance to six years of age from 8, strengthening campus rape-reporting procedures, and creating a marketplace to make it cheaper for Pennsylvanians to buy some forms of health insurance. The governor also got approval for a measure that provides post-secondary educational credits for families of Pennsylvania Guard members.
When the budget came up for a vote last week, more than half the Democrats in the House voted against the plan. In the Senate, roughly a third of the Democratic senators rejected it. For some, it was their first taste of how deals are brokered in Harrisburg.
Democratic leaders acknowledge that the budget contains concessions. But House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) defended his decision to agree to it, noting the budget is a “complicated issue,” and that “nobody is going to go to heaven.”
“When you have a budget bill like this, it’s hard to deal with it,” he said. “We have a Republican majority we have to deal with and we have issues that we care about deeply, … and you try to accommodate everybody, [but] you can’t.”
Wolf, who kept a low profile during negotiations, has said he hopes to rekindle conversations on some of his priorities not included in the deal, such as boosting the minimum wage and additional anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
“We’ve gotten a lot of things done, but it doesn’t .. . take away from the idea that we still have a lot of work to do,” Wolf said Friday, shortly before he signed the bulk of the budget-related bills. “Minimum wage is one of those things. Making sure that we are addressing the needs of our most vulnerable fellow citizens is another."
While Wolf and Democratic leaders promise to continue fighting, they acknowledge Republicans have given no assurances that they will take up those issues in the fall or next year.
Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) said he believes Democrats won’t have another chance to advance legislative priorities until next summer’s budget talks — traditionally a time of horse-trading on big policy issues.
“This is a matter of math at this point,” he said. “And the math is not in the Democrats’ favor.”
Wolf is no stranger to budget fights. In his first year in office, he went to war with Republicans over fiscal matters — a battle of wills that led to a historic, nine-month impasse that stressed out school districts, social service providers, and others reliant on state aid.
But the governor in recent years has employed a different negotiating strategy, working largely behind the scenes and avoiding public spats with GOP leaders.
Some want him to return to the Wolf of 2015.
Democratic leaders caution that fighting this year could have led to a late budget and the consequences that come with it.
But for others, a prolonged argument would bring potential rewards. Keystone Progress, a progressive activist group, released a statement on Tuesday morning that attacked lawmakers for prioritizing “timeliness” over “their core values.”
One freshman legislator echoed the group’s sentiments.
“An impasse is not the worst thing that can happen for my community,” said state Rep. Summer Lee, a Democrat from Allegheny County. “An impasse is not the worst thing that can happen for communities across this commonwealth. The worst thing that can happen is for you to tell us that there is nothing that we can do — that there is nothing more that we can do for those who are the least among us.”
Other first-term Democrats also railed against the budget plan. State Rep. Danielle Friel-Otten (D., Chester), called it a “sweetheart deal for special interests,” and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia) called it “galling” in a year when money wasn’t tight.
Pollster G. Terry Madonna, who has followed state politics for decades, said Wolf faces no real consequences for ignoring the progressive minority within his party. He said the governor can push for legislation, such as raising the minimum wage, in the fall.
Nevertheless, some are hoping that the division within the party will spark discussion on how budget deals are negotiated, and set the tone for future talks.
Said Fiedler: “Going forward, I’m hopeful that we are going to have more open conversation and communication on the budget in general and on spending priorities within the commonwealth."