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Pennsylvania progressives are angry Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t ‘fight the fight’ on the state budget

It's the latest sign that Wolf's influence is waning as next year’s open-seat race to succeed him looms and lawmakers increasingly see him as a lame duck.

Gov. Tom Wolf at Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Friday.
Gov. Tom Wolf at Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Friday.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Disgraceful.” A “spectacular failure.” An “insult” to people struggling to pay their bills.

Those are a few of the ways progressive Democrats and other traditional allies of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf described the state budget he heralded as historic and signed into law last week.

Once embraced by the left as the one person standing between the GOP-led legislature and new antiabortion laws and other conservative goals, Wolf is now facing fresh criticism from some in his own party who say he let Republicans steamroll him in negotiations over the $40 billion spending plan.

Though far less surprising, he’s taking heat on the right, too, as Republicans accuse him of reneging on an agreement — disputed by Democrats — to fund a new election audit bureau. Emboldened by referendums voters approved in May that reined in the governor’s emergency powers, Republicans are already using Wolf as a foil in next year’s elections. And they’re poised to try another end-around Wolf’s veto pen by pursuing a constitutional amendment for stricter voter ID rules.

Taken together, the developments in Harrisburg are the latest sign that the second-term Democrat’s influence is waning as next year’s open-seat race to succeed him draws near and lawmakers in both parties increasingly treat him as a lame duck.

“I don’t know how he makes the argument that he’s not a lame duck if he wasn’t willing to fight the fight this time,” State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery), who voted against the budget, said in an interview.

» READ MORE: Pa. Republicans are taking aim at Tom Wolf, not Biden, as they look to win the 2022 governor’s race

Wolf touted a big increase in education funding but acknowledged he didn’t get everything he wanted. That’s the reality of divided government, he said.

“This is what you do when you’re trying to get the best possible budget you can,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’ve done a lot of things for some of the poorest kids in Pennsylvania by doing this. But it’s not a whole loaf.”

And his supporters said a lengthy budget stalemate would be far more costly. During Wolf’s first term, an impasse between the governor and Republicans lasted nine months into the new fiscal year, forcing school districts to borrow money and social service agencies to lay off employees.

Wolf’s approval ratings fell this spring amid pandemic fatigue and an initially uneven vaccine rollout that was criticized by Democratic officials in the Philadelphia suburbs. Pennsylvania has made up ground since then, with about three-quarters of adults having received at least one dose — the ninth-highest rate in the country. But the state ranks a bit lower for its share of fully vaccinated residents. And an Inquirer analysis found that Pennsylvania ranks fifth from the bottom nationwide in people failing to complete their immunizations.

While the ballot referendums suggested Wolf’s political capital had been diminished, Democrats hoped an unexpected cash cushion and federal coronavirus relief aid would strengthen their hand in budget talks.

Wolf and legislative Democrats wanted to increase public school funding by $1.3 billion and take a more aggressive approach to narrow the gap between wealthier and poorer districts. They proposed tapping part of a $3 billion end-of-year surplus to pay for the plan without increasing taxes.

Wolf ended up brokering a deal with Republican and Democratic leaders that increased the state’s main subsidy for K-12 funding by $300 million — one-third of which goes to districts with the least resources. Combined with other money, the plan amounts to the biggest increase in education spending in state history, according to the governor’s office.

But to secure GOP support, Wolf agreed to eliminate a regulation that was set to expand eligibility for overtime pay to tens of thousands of lower-wage workers starting later this year. Some rank-and-file Democrats said they were blindsided by the deal.

» READ MORE: Pa.’s poorest school districts will get more money next year. Public education advocates say the budget still falls short.

Democrats also hoped to use $7 billion in federal aid to fund a range of programs. But the final spending plan saved the bulk of the money for future budgets and allocated $1 billion for things like nursing homes, infrastructure, and after-school programs.

“This budget was bull—,” State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), who’s running for U.S. Senate, said Thursday. “It was a crap budget that did not meet the needs of Pennsylvanians.”

Kenyatta, who voted against the bill, blamed Republicans and said the legislature missed an opportunity to pay for things like remediating school buildings “where there is asbestos falling from the ceiling like rain.”

“With all due respect to some of the things that were in the budget that were a little bit better,” he said, “I don’t think a Band-Aid is good enough when you have a gushing wound.”

Plenty of Democrats voted for the budget. State Rep. Joanna McClinton, the House Democratic leader, highlighted funding for community violence-prevention programs and a grant for emergency and medical services in the Darby part of her Philadelphia-centered district. “We are working to save lives,” she said.

Others said the $100 million for the state’s poorest schools will make a big difference in their districts.

In a statement, Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger noted that he has faced a GOP-dominated legislature throughout his tenure.

“He has fought attempts to roll back LGBTQ rights, vetoed some of the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the nation, expanded voting rights, provided health care for millions of Pennsylvanians, and despite legislative obstruction, began the implementation of the strongest climate protection policy in Pennsylvania history,” she said.

“The governor has always fought for progressive values and will continue to fight hard to advance policies that move Pennsylvania forward across the finish line,” Kensinger added.

Yet some of Wolf’s staunchest supporters, including labor unions like the American Federation of Teachers, expressed disappointment. Arthur G. Steinberg, president of the union’s Pennsylvania chapter, said the trade-off between school funding and overtime pay was “unacceptable.”

“This spending plan represents not just a colossal missed opportunity to invest in the future of our commonwealth, but erodes worker protections and the programs that benefit the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

Rick Bloomingdale, the head of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania, told Wolf the deal left scores of workers “screwed out of overtime pay,” the Associated Press reported.

Muth said the issue goes beyond the budget. “A lot of Democrats have gotten used to being in the minority, unfortunately,” said Muth, who was elected in 2018. “I empathize with them.”

While Republicans are the majority party, she said, Democrats could have used the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to rally public support for their ideas. “You sold out people that are salaried workers … and then you hear the same people who sold them down the river say, ‘We don’t wanna be here over summer to fight a budget,’” Muth said.

Some Democrats also chafed at an announcement late last month that Wolf’s chief of staff and budget secretary were both leaving for the private sector. They took it as a sign that the administration wanted to wrap up the budget quickly instead of fight for a better deal, according to one House Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating Democratic leaders.

Eric Rosso, executive director of the progressive watchdog group Pennsylvania Spotlight, said the budget showed “the limitations of not only Wolf’s two terms, but the Wolf administration’s strategy in negotiating budgets.”

Rather than working behind closed doors with Republican leaders, he said, the governor should open up the process to advocates and community groups to make the case for his agenda.

It could be worse, Rosso acknowledged.

“When you sort of ask what does the left think about Tom Wolf, the caveat is always he has blocked a bunch of bad stuff from happening in Pennsylvania,” he said. “That’s a hundred percent true.”