Wolf broke the fourth wall with his budget speech. Will Pa. tune in? | John L. Micek

February 3, 2021 2:02 pm

A very different time demanded a very different kind of budget address.

And as he rolled out a $37.8 billion budget plan for 2021-22 that includes a personal income tax hike, a massive infusion of cash for Pennsylvania’s public schools, and a severance-tax funded workforce development plan, Gov. Tom Wolf did just that on Wednesday morning.

Speaking from the executive residence in Harrisburg, deprived of a live audience, and stripped of the usual pomp and pageantry, Wolf’s brief address, delivered via video, clocked in at economical 20 minutes.

It was, in many ways, a speech that reflected its intended audience — not the 253 members of the General Assembly, though they will have a major say in how much of the York County Democrat’s ambitious plan gets signed into law. Rather it was the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have been working from home, and maybe schooling their kids at the same time, as the pandemic stretches into its 11th month.

Wolf made note of that Wednesday, observing that it was “perhaps the only time in the last century that a governor has not made the annual budget address in person, in the Capitol with much of official Harrisburg arrayed in front.

“Instead, today I am talking to you directly – all of my fellow Pennsylvanians,” he continued. “And maybe this is the way it ought to be done.”

Wolf kept the spotlight on those ordinary Pennsylvanians for the rest of his remarks, framing his policy arguments through the eyes of a young family, just starting out, fighting to cover the mortgage and the car payments, even as they sweated sending their future kids to college.

Wolf calls for income tax increase to close looming state deficit, fund education

“What if we asked people about the barriers standing between them and the bright future they imagined when they decided to build a life here in the Commonwealth?” Wolf mused at one point.

Wolf wants to raise some of those barriers by injecting $1.35 billion into K-12 education; hiking state support for special education and early childhood programs; eventually raising the minimum wage from the current $7.25/hr to $15/hr.; and by approving a multi-billion dollar investment in workforce development that would be funded through borrowing and paid off by a tax on Marcellus shale natural gas drillers.

He’d pay for that new school spending by hiking the state’s personal income tax from its current 3.07 percent to 4.49 percent. The administration argued that most Pennsylvania households would, in fact, see a tax cut or have their taxes eliminated entirely.

“Nobody likes paying [taxes], but some things can only be accomplished with everyone chipping in,” Wolf, a millionaire, observed.

Republicans who control the state House and Senate already have declared the spending plan dead on arrival. They doubled-down on their scorn Wednesday, arguing that Pennsylvania workers and small businesses, already dealt the one-two punch of the pandemic and its entailing economic collapse, couldn’t afford a tax hike.

It’s unbelievable that a governor in a pandemic would propose this kind of major tax increase,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said. Republicans also have argued that the prospect of another federal relief package should temper calls to raise taxes, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison report.

How Pa. lawmakers, interest groups reacted to Wolf’s 2021-2022 budget proposal

Wolf on Wednesday sought to draw a bright-line contrast between the incremental thinking that’s plagued the Capitol for decades and what he said was the urgency of moving boldly — despite, or even because of, the pandemic.

“I refuse to tell any young family in Pennsylvania that they just happen to be starting out at the wrong time – that, with everything going on, 2021 just isn’t going to be the year we get around to lifting the barriers that stand between them and the future they hope to provide for their children,” he said.

Then, speaking past lawmakers again, to the folks he hoped might be watching at home, Wolf urged them to get involved.

“Go online. Look at my budget. Look at what it would mean for your family, for your community, and for our commonwealth. And if you agree that your family would be better off in a Pennsylvania with fairer taxes and better schools, raise your voice,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all work for you. If you’ve had enough of being told why your government can’t solve your problems, make it crystal clear that, this time, you don’t want to hear that anymore; that you won’t accept any more excuses. Call your representatives.

“Help me get this budget through the Legislature. Let’s make Pennsylvania an even better place to live, work, and dream big dreams for your kids,” he concluded.

It was a bold statement — and a risky one. Budget speeches are a lot of things. They’re moral statements. They’re policy documents. They’re a launching-off point for debate. What they are not, however, is must-see TV.

So the big question: Was anyone, beyond the pols, advocates, and the usually engaged Twitterati, really listening?

“There’s an opportunity to reach a lot of folks going forward,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in an interview after the speech, arguing that the prospect of billions of dollars in new spending for schools would turn parents’ heads, and that the prospect of a minimum wage hike would resonate with low-income workers.

He might be right. Wolf’s gambit might work. Or it might fall prey to the same political and moral inertia that tends to consume most good ideas in Harrisburg.

A very different time demanded a very different kind of budget address. We got that much. We’ll see what happens next.

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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.