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Gov. Wolf signs budget containing some items Democrats oppose

The Democratic governor said he will sign the $34 billion spending plan sent to him by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed the new $34 billion state budget on Friday, though it lacks many of his key priorities — including a minimum wage hike — and forced him to sign off on several Republican-backed measures that his party opposes.

The blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1 does not contain any new or increased taxes. It boosts funding for public schools and state-run universities and community colleges, and sets money aside for the state’s main savings account, the Rainy-Day Fund.

But Wolf was unable to persuade Republicans to raise the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, save a cash assistance program for the poor, or approve a multibillion-dollar plan for infrastructure improvements that he wanted to finance with a new tax on natural gas drillers.

And Republicans were able to maneuver to tie some of their priorities, including a controversial election change, to legislation that Wolf would be hard-pressed to veto.

“There are things that we still need to work,” the governor said Friday, “but we made some real progress in this budget.”

Wolf’s signature on the budget came after a week filled with a flurry of floor votes and debate that at one point turned chaotic.

On Wednesday, a rare fight broke out on the Senate floor during a debate over eliminating the cash assistance program. During the fracas, Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) hollered at Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to obey the chamber’s rules and stop Democratic State Sen. Katie Muth of Montgomery County from speaking about the measure.

In the end, Republicans prevailed in eliminating the program, over the objections of Democrats, including Wolf. GOP lawmakers tucked the program’s elimination into a bill that Wolf was hard-pressed to veto: it also provides Medicaid dollars to Philadelphia hospitals.

Wolf on Friday signed the bill, but compared it to a “Hobson’s choice.”

“If I veto the whole thing, we don’t get the tens of millions of dollars for hospitals that serve people in need,” he said, adding later: “I’m sorry that that was the bad choice I have to make.”

Another bill, the fiscal code, includes a controversial provision that temporarily blocks municipalities from imposing bans or new regulations on plastic bags. Philadelphia has been considering such a ban. By embedding it in the fiscal code — which is a necessary budget bill — Republicans increased its chances of becoming law. Wolf signed the bill.

A separate bill now before Wolf would eliminate straight-party voting, extend the absentee ballot deadline, and provide money for new voting machines. The legislation, though not technically a budget bill, became a bargaining chip in this year’s talks. Wolf said Friday that he had not decided whether to sign the bill, veto it, or allow it to lapse into law without his signature.

In all, the new $34 billion budget increases spending 3.8 percent over last year’s plan.

It provides $160 million more in funding for K-12 education; an additional $50 million for special education; $25 million more for early childhood programs; and an extra $25 million for a program that provides tax credits to businesses that donate money for scholarships to private schools for needy students.

It also provides 2 percent increases in funding for the four state-related universities — Temple, Pennsylvania State, Pittsburgh, and Lincoln; additional money for career and technical education; and a 2 percent funding bump for community colleges.

Other measures Wolf backs, such as changing the mandatory age for school attendance to 6 from 8, strengthening campus rape reporting procedures, and creating a marketplace to make it cheaper for Pennsylvanians to buy some forms of health insurance, also passed amid negotiations.

“Look, we have divided government. That’s no secret,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, said Friday. “That was an attempt to reach a compromise.”

Wolf described it similarly, noting that much of the end product had his support as well as that of Republicans.

“We were talking about making lives better,” he said, “and we’ve done that.”