By Dave Lemery | The Center Square
In his annual budget address Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf sounded a conciliatory note to the Republican-controlled Legislature, touting past budget agreements and vowing that his budget proposal included no new taxes and no “wild-eyed ideological crusade.”
But it did feature a number of concepts likely to run into Republican opposition, as party leaders indicated in the immediate aftermath of the speech before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives.
One of the governor’s top proposals was a five-point plan to remove obstacles to employment in the state. He cited the work of the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, which he said had identified key pain points for those looking for good-paying jobs.
“It’s frustrating to imagine that someone might lose out on their opportunity to get ahead because of something as ordinary as bureaucratic red tape, or a simple lack of bus routes,” Wolf said. “Frustrating, and also stupid, if we care about our economy. But the good news is that these are solvable problems. In fact, this budget contains a blueprint for making progress toward overcoming each of these five obstacles.”
The governor’s budget seeks to boost child care availability, improve transportation options, look at outdated occupation licensing requirements, increase work training programs and provide more help to those re-entering society after being incarcerated.
“And by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, we can raise hundreds of millions of dollars in auction proceeds to make our air cleaner and our transit system stronger so that Pennsylvanians can get to the jobs businesses are creating,” the governor said.
Another key proposal was for a Nellie Bly scholarship, named after the famed early 20th Century journalist who once attended what is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The governor proposed to fund the scholarship by using money currently dedicated to supporting horse racing.
School funding, always a top issue in the state budget, led the governor to speak at length on charter and cyber charter schools, indicating that too many were “little more than fronts for private management companies” and “sham schools.”
“Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform,” he said. “It’s time to close the loopholes. It’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field. By doing so we can continue to provide parents with real choices. We can empower charter schools to focus on their mission of innovation, and we can save $280 million each year, and we can put that money right back into improving our public school system.”
The proposed savings from tightening rules on charter schools would be used to pay for teacher raises and school building improvements, Wolf said.
The governor also called for sweeping gun law restrictions, arguing that the state should pass universal background checks, stronger reporting requirements for lost and stolen guns and red flag laws, among other measures.
“I know there is no law that can eliminate every act of gun violence,” he said. “But the steps I’m proposing are supported by the evidence and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians. We can pass them tomorrow. And by doing so we could make our commonwealth safer. So I hope the Legislature will join me at the table on this. To let another session go by without action would be a failure of imagination that will cost lives.”
The Republican leaders of the House and Senate, gathered for a news conference following the governor’s address, said they appreciated Wolf’s rhetoric about fiscal responsibility, but they doubted that his actions would match those words.
“We share many of the same goals that the governor outlined today,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler said. “And we hope to be celebrating policies that accomplish these shared goals later this year as part of an on-time budget. However, the job ahead of us is difficult, because we are starting this conversation in a hole. This administration has overspent the current budget by more than half a billion dollars. This, unfortunately, has even outstripped our strong financial growth and tax revenues here in the Commonwealth.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman questioned the governor’s assertion that there are no new taxes in the proposed budget.
“Even though the governor said there’s no new taxes, there is, there’s over half a billion dollars in new taxes in this budget document, by raising spending at high levels and by creating more debt,” Corman said. “That is not how we achieved our success together.”
The governor’s budget address kicks off a series of events that will include appropriations hearings with each department of state government during February and March, followed by closed-door negotiations between the administration and legislative leaders that should produce a compromise budget sometime in June.