HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature have just two weeks left to meet the July 1 deadline for a new budget.
Yet few in the Capitol appear stressed over the annual horse-trading ritual. This year, there is more money — revenues are running more than $800 million higher than projected — and more realism: It’s Wolf’s fifth time at the budget negotiating table, and he and GOP leaders have managed this time to avoid the overt clash of wills that marked the governor’s early years in office.
Still, there are policy disagreements, and many of them center around the priorities Wolf embedded in his $34.1 billion budget proposal. Here are the issues that will dominate talks this year:
Wolf has proposed raising the state’s current minimum of $7.25 — the same as the federal minimum — every year since taking office in 2015. This year, he wants to hike it on a sliding scale, starting with a bump to $12 this July. It would rise by 50 cents every year until 2025, when it would reach $15. After that, the wage would increase every year with the cost of living.
Republicans have historically rejected the idea. But earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) made headlines when he said he believed it was time to seriously discuss a hike, although stressing that he believed the increase needed to be more “reasonable” than what Wolf was proposing. Surrounding states, including New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, all have higher minimum wages.
In an interview last week, Corman said talks are ongoing but added, “We haven’t landed anywhere as of yet.” Leaders in the House of Representatives have largely avoided public discussion of the issue (House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler has not responded to requests for comment).
On Thursday, Rep. Patty Kim (D., Dauphin) wrote on Twitter that talks on the issue have stalled: “I introduced FOUR min wage bills since 2013. They all sat in committee without a hearing for a total of 1,725 days! Low-wage workers can’t wait any longer!”
Though a deal on hiking the minimum wage can be struck at any time, proponents hoped for one during this month’s budget negotiations.
Wolf also wants to impose a sliding-scale fee on municipalities that rely on the State Police for patrol coverage (it would only apply to municipalities without local police forces, or that have disbanded them). The fee would range from $8 to $166 per person, depending on a community’s population. The fee would raise $103 million, administration officials have said.
Like the minimum wage, the State Police fee proposal is something Wolf has sought before without success. Some Republicans have balked at the impact it would have on small, rural areas, while others have noted that even municipalities with their own police forces, such as Philadelphia, use State Police services and would not be forced to pay anything.
House Republican leaders have been openly critical of the fee and signaled they would not support it. Corman, too, said that for the moment, the proposal appears dead.
Wolf earlier this year proposed reinstating a cash-assistance program helping the poorest Pennsylvanians — a program Republicans eliminated in 2012. The so-called general assistance program had supported residents, many disabled, with a $200 monthly stipend, which they used for housing, transportation, and personal necessities.
GOP leaders signaled earlier this year that they would block its reinstatement. Wolf, while promising to continue fighting for the program, has pitched an alternative: using the roughly $50 million that supported general assistance to help low-income residents secure affordable housing.
Corman last week said he and others in his caucus “are open to discussion” on the governor’s alternative plan.
But State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia), who has rallied for the original cash-assistance program, has skewered the Republican-led push to permanently kill the program.
As he has every year since taking office, Wolf is asking for more money for public education — an additional $200 million in funding for K-12 instruction in public schools — as well as a $50 million boost for special education and an extra $7 million for Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities. Though there is bound to be quibbling on the amounts, this issue is not expected to bog down talks.
What is likely to create tension is a push by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to boost by $100 million a program that provides tax breaks to businesses that donate money for scholarships to private schools. Wolf has balked at Turzai’s proposed increase, and the issue is bound to be a negotiating chip in talks.
This was the governor’s signature budget program, and it appears as good as dead. Republicans like the concept but oppose how Wolf would pay for it: a new tax on natural gas drillers.
Wolf had wanted to borrow $4.5 billion over four years and dedicate the money to help fund infrastructure improvements, fight blight, and build higher-speed internet in rural areas, among other initiatives. The loan would be paid off using money from a gas severance tax, a levy that Republicans have blocked every year since Wolf took office.
Wolf’s budget proposal included $15 million to help counties cover the cost of updating their voting machines. His administration last year directed counties to begin using machines that create a paper record of votes to verify the accuracy of results. The goal is to have the new machines operating by the 2020 primary.
Counties, estimating the price tag at $125 million, have balked at the expense. The administration has said it will propose similar annual infusions to help offset those costs, for a total of $75 million, over five years.
But Corman last week said Wolf created this problem for counties by “unilaterally moving to decertify [existing] machines” — and now will have to find another way to solve it.