Our “full-time” legislature’s annual rush to start its long vacation of 2½ months is underway in Harrisburg.
Knowing how much taxpayers love and respect (and pay for) our legislature — this year, $340 million — now seems a good time for a progress report on passing a new state budget.
Basically, it’s going well.
For them. Not necessarily for you. Or the greater needs of city and state.
Still, a no-new-taxes, on-time plan seems likely by the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The economy is good. Tax collection is up. There’s a fat $813 million surplus. And despite a divided government, no make-or-break issue to lock Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in the ideological cage match they’ve waged in recent years.
Doesn’t mean there’s no contention. There is. Especially impacting Philadelphia.
City lawmakers want to hike the minimum wage as a way to fight Philly poverty. And they seek to save from the chopping block a small aid program for some of the city’s (and the state’s) most vulnerable citizens.
First the minimum wage.
City data show 63,000 working Philadelphians living at or near the poverty line.
All neighboring states hiked wage rates while we’ve stayed stuck for a decade at a federally set $7.25 an hour. Wolf, who’s called for hikes since taking office, proposes $12 an hour starting in July, going to $15 by 2025.
And Philadelphia voters last month overwhelmingly approved a ballot question in favor of raising the hourly wage to $15 by 2025.
But the ballot question is meaningless. Hikes can’t happen unless the feds or the legislature up the rate, or state law is changed to allow Philly to do so on its own.
And while Republicans for the first time in forever haven’t fully slammed the door on a modest increase (to something around $9), the issue looks like a GOP bargaining chip for who knows what in return.
Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Jason Dawkins, who heads the city’s House delegation, says, “Minimum wage needs to be addressed at some point,” adding that even a slight bump is helpful.
“But we’re not in the majority here,” he says. “So, reality has to set in.”
Philly Democratic Sen. Art Haywood last session sponsored, and this session cosponsors, legislation allowing the city to set its own minimum wage.
He cites the city’s poverty rate of 26 percent and says a wage increase “could cut poverty dramatically in Philadelphia.”
Still, since politics supersedes governance, don’t count on it. And don’t be surprised if a real fight over the wage is saved for next year’s legislative elections.
For now, I suspect a minimum wage hike has, at a best, a minimum chance.
Same, sadly, for Dawkins’ personal priority — protecting a General Assistance effort that Republicans want to end (again).
It offers cash grants of about $200 a month to mostly disabled adults who can’t work and are awaiting approval of federal benefits.
The program, started in the 1960s, was shut down by the Republican legislature in 2012, then reinstated in 2018 after lengthy litigation.
“It’s something we need to fight for,” says Dawkins. “Our poverty numbers aren’t dropping, and the money is mostly reimbursed to the state (by the feds).”
Wolf’s proposed $34 billion budget seeks $50 million for the program, which currently serves more than 3,000 Philadelphians.
“But it’s not just for Philadelphia,” says Sen. Haywood, ranking Democrat on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, who’s heading a statewide “poverty tour” that so far hit Lock Haven, McKeesport and Erie.
General Assistance grants, he says, come up at every stop.
Haywood is also pressing for more money for schools and new grants for organizations fighting gun violence.
But Republicans, who don’t like raising the minimum wage, cash grants for the needy, or anything implying that guns are bad, run the show.
They also oppose the bigger spending Wolf wants for infrastructure and education — the former because it’s tied to a not-gonna-happen natural gas severance tax, the latter because Wolf always wants more for schools than Republicans normally want to give.
So it goes.