Budget Day 2021: 5 things to watch for in Gov. Tom Wolf’s new spending plan | Wednesday Morning Coffee

February 3, 2021 7:07 am

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed (Capital-Star photo).

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

When the first details of Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021 budget plan started to trickle out last week, our immediate reaction was to start whistling The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.

With proposals to hike the minimum wage, impose a severance tax, and legalize recreation marijuana, it was easy to conclude “Here’s the new Wolf budget, same as the old Wolf budget … “

You know the rest.

Then, on Tuesday, with the formal unveiling of the York County Democrat’s spending plan delayed by a winter storm that dropped roughly a metric ton of snow on parts of Pennsylvania, word leaked out about Wolf’s education plan: An approximately $2 billion infusion of cash for K-12 education funded by a personal income tax hike that includes expanded forgiveness provisions for low-income Pennsylvanians. The news was first reported by the Associated Press’ ever-alert Marc Levy.

Donna Cooper, a former Rendell administration official who’s now active in public school causes, told the Capital-Star that Wolf’s plan is his “most ambitious one to date,” even as it repackaged some old proposals.

“This could be a watershed moment for the state,” Cooper said. “It’s almost an omnibus of ideas he’s been proffering over his time in office.”

That’s true. But it’s also true that this is hardly Wolf’s first trip to the well in search of an income tax hike and those journeys have never ended well.

The first one came in 2015, as our friends at the Post-Gazette reported way back when. Through 2018, Wolf had sought — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — at least 11 tax hikes, according to a tally by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, who, admittedly, come to the table with a certain point of view.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, with little else but to do but stare at the snow, and reconcile themselves to the fact that the cat was out of the bag, Wolf’s office just went ahead and released the broad contours of the spending plan.

After the jump, five things we’ll be watching for in the administration’s budget proposal today. The bottom line number is still TBA.

Members of the Pennsylvania House applaud newly elected Speaker Bryan Cutler on June 22, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

1. The New, New Minimum Wage Hike: Once again, Wolf is looking to hike the state’s minimum, tied to the federal minimum, from the $7.25/hr it’s been mired at since 2009, to $12/hr, and hiking it to $15/hr by 2027. While Pennsylvania has been fiddling on this issue, every single one of our neighboring states have higher minimum wages (West Virginia’s is lowest at $8.75/hr, while New York’s tops out at $12.50/hr.). Insert pointless braying about competitiveness from the business community here.

2. Once more around the track: As he did last year (was it only last year?), Wolf is again proposing creating a scholarship program for low- and middle-income students who attend Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities. The $199 million Nellie Bly scholarship program (down from $204 million last time), as it’s known, would be funded by redirecting gaming revenues that are now channeled into the state’s Horse Racing Development Fund, a relic of the 2004 law that legalized casino gambling in Pennsylvania. More astute readers will recall that the industry and its allies kicked up clods of turf fighting this proposal last year.

(Photo via

3. Child Care Assistance: In its statement, the administration noted that reimbursements for the state’s subsidized child care program, Child Care Works, haven’t kept pace with rising operating costs. These businesses also have faced strains because of the pandemic. The administration’s plan calls for increasing payment rates for subsidized child care to keep pace with rates for private-pay families, and to ensure equal access to child care for all Pennsylvanians, it said. This would be paid for through $87.17 million in additional federal funds “to support these increased Child Care Works base rates and create a more stable business environment for child care facilities,” the administration said.

4. Investing in Public Infrastructure: Wolf may have rebranded his severance tax-funded infrastructure program Restore PA, and shifted the focus to workforce development, by now calling it Back to Work PA, but that doesn’t mean the Democrat has given up on infrastructure entirely. He’s proposing a $1 billion expansion of the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (Don’t call them WAMs, even if they are). The initiative would open the state grant program for lead and asbestos remediation projects, including schools. The problem is so pronounced in Philadelphia that, last November, the University of Pennsylvania pledged an extraordinary $100 million to help the district fight lead and asbestos contamination, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune reported.

5. Just When You Were Bored with Fights Over Election Reform: As expected, Wolf will once again ask lawmakers to extend the pre-canvassing window for mail-in ballots. The administration had sought a three-week window at one point, but was never able to get a deal, so counties were stuck with opening envelopes, but not counting them, on Election Day. The administration also will seek legislative authorization of same-day voter registration. Under current law, eligible voters now have until 15 days before Election Day to register. Wolf also is expected to call for “strengthening voter intimidation restrictions.” Multiple legislative panels are now conducting their own reviews of the state’s election code. At least one lawmaker, Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, is floating a plan to repeal the no-excuse, mail-in voting that led to a record number of Pennsylvanians casting their ballots in 2020. Gregory, like other Republican critics of the law, won re-election under those ground rules and has not protested the legitimacy of his own results.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Gov. Tom Wolf 
will propose a roughly $2 billion infusion for K-12 education when he rolls out his FY 2021-22 budget today. From our staff, the necessary details and context about the plan, which also sets aside more money for early childhood and special education programs.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller takes stock of the state’s efforts to guard against cyber-attacks. The issue gained new urgency in the wake of revelations about widespread hacking at the federal level late last year. The commonwealth insists it can handle all comers. Some lawmakers are less than convinced.

Stephen Caruso conducts an exit interview with former state Treasurer Joe Torsella, finding the suburban Philly Democrat in a reflective mood after his re-election loss to Republican Stacy Garrity last November.

Officials from three states told a congressional panel that, when it comes to help from Washington on the COVID-19 vaccine, they need the three M’s: More doses, more information to guide their planning, and more money. Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson has the story.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Frank Pizzoli reflects on how lawmakers blew it — again — on extending civil rights protections for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. And two University of Delaware experts detail three ways that white people can be better allies to their Black co-workers and help them combat institutional racism in the workplace.

(Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, an emergency department physician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, receives Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Mon., 12/14/20)

Philadelphia’s Black residents already were suspicious about the COVID-19 vaccine. The city’s troubled rollout has made that even more complicated, the Inquirer reports.
Two members of Pittsburgh City Council want to declare an ‘educational emergency’ in the city’s schools now that the school board has voted to keep all students online amid the pandemic, the Post-Gazette reports.
Former Harrisburg City Councilman Otto Banks has declared his candidacy for mayorPennLive reports.
The state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout will get scrutiny from lawmakers, the Morning Call reports.
The head of Luzerne County’s elections board has resigned, continuing the churn in area elections officials, the Citizens-Voice reports.
York County’s coroner has released a report on pandemic deathsThe York Daily Record has the details.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

Shop-Rite and Walgreens will offer COVID-19 vaccines to older Philadelphians, WHYY-FM reports.
During a town hall, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, talked COVID-19 and denounced U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has embraced the worst conspiracy theories, WESA-FM reports.
After a bureaucratic blunder, sex abuse victims in Pennsylvania are looking for justiceGoErie reports.
Pressures are growing to reopen schools, but concerns persist, reports. 
Former House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, has been appointed to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, PoliticsPA reports.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is ‘lying low’ ahead of the start of the Senate’s impeachment trial next week, Politico reports.

What Goes On.
Happy Virtual Budget Day — again. Assuming there hasn’t been a rain of frogs or plague of locusts overnight, Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address at 11:30 a.m. this morning to the state House and Senate.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia
, holds an 8 a.m. virtual breakfast. Admission runs a very real $1,000 to $5,000. Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, holds an 8 a.m. breakfast at Anna Rose Bakery & Café on 2nd Street in Harrisburg. Admission runs $500 to $2,500. Because, with great power, comes great fundraising responsibility.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to our former PennLive colleague, Ivey DeJesus, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Ever wonder what tunes the great James Baldwin spun during stays at his storied home in St. Paul de Venice in France? Because the internet is a magical place, someone went back and reconstructed the legendary author’s vinyl collection. And safe to say, it is, amazing. Take a listen for yourself.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina pulled out a 4-3 shootout win 
over Chicago on Tuesday night, notching their fifth straight win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.