Sober? Steady? Liked by Republicans? A most unusual Wolf budget indeed | John L. Micek

February 6, 2019 6:30 am

Why is this man smiling?

There was plenty that was familiar about Gov. Tom Wolf’s fifth budget address on Tuesday.

Once again, he was after a higher minimum wage and more money for public schools. And he was taking another run at trying to get municipalities without their own police departments to pony up and pay for the free coverage they get from the Pennsylvania State Police.

And, of course, there was not even a whisper of the personal income tax or sales tax hikes that turned the debate over Wolf’s freshman spending plan in 2015 into a joyless slog that lasted well into autumn.

But that was about where the similarities ended.

Heading into Tuesday’s speech, there was really only one question worth asking: Which Wolf would show up?

Would it be a bold progressive, buoyed by his landslide win over Republican Scott Wagner last fall, and emboldened by the surge of the Democratic Party’s youthful and increasingly diverse left wing?

Or would it be the Wolf, as House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, optimistically predicted, who emerged in the third and fourth years of his first term: accommodating and willing to negotiate with the Legislature’s Republican majority?

The answer came less than five minutes into Wolf’s 30-minute address to a joint session of the state House and Senate.

“Let me cut to the chase,” he said. “This proposal asks for no new taxes. Not one dollar. Not one dime. Not one penny.”

Republicans in the House chamber rose to their feet in a standing ovation. Some Democrats, it seemed, reluctantly joined in. And you had to wonder what was going through the head of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who was seated behind Wolf on the Speaker’s dais. He’s a loyal soldier, but he also has some very definitive views about the rich.

Any doubt that this was a different kind of Wolf was entirely dispelled a few minutes later. He talked about winding down Pennsylvania’s 9.99 percent corporate net income tax to 5.99 percent by 2024.

He bragged about trimming the ranks of Pennsylvania’s (largely unionized) public workforce and boasted about “[getting] rid of facilities and leases that we don’t use or need while consolidating commonwealth operations within the Capitol complex.”

And he talked about partnering with both business and labor to improve workforce development initiatives across state government.

“If a business can’t hire a worker because of an out-of-date or unnecessary rule or regulation, we need to know about it so we can take action,” he said. “If medical professionals are concerned about a licensing backlog, they need receptive ears in state government.”

And, at that moment, most likely, somewhere in York County, Wagner dropped a PennWaste garbage can in disbelief.

Instead of spewing fire from the lectern, legislative Republicans … wait for itactually praised vast portions of Wolf’s remarks during the obligatory post-speech press scrum on the second-floor “porch” between the House and Senate chambers.

“I think we’ll break the normal tradition as the opposition to come out and ridicule or complain about the governor’s proposal,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “There is a lot there we can get behind, at least generically. The governor laid out priorities that I think we all share, workforce development being chief among them.”

“We absolutely agree that our business tax structure is burdensome and the tax rates are too high, which creates disincentives for us to grow our economy and employ more of our citizens,” Cutler said. “Governor Wolf’s budget sets forth a series of ideas that I believe House Republicans can find agreement on and that our members were elected to tackle.”

There is, of course, the small matter of how lawmakers and the administration are going to find the nearly $1 billion in new revenue it will take to pay for Wolf’s $34.1 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Republicans have made it clear that they have zero interest in Wolf’s plan to boost Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage to $12 an hour, and then, over time to $15 an hour. And, in any event, the $36 million it’s expected to save the state in 2020 and $119 million the year after that (largely in the form of lower social services costs) won’t do much to close the gap.

They’re equally cool to Wolf’s proposed severance tax hike, which he wants to use to help pay for infrastructure repairs. The administration has insisted that proposal will be pursued separately from the budget. But there is little expectation that will be the end result.

“I understand his idea of wanting to keep it separate, but either now, or in the future, it will all come together” in the budget debate, said Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

In the House, Democrats treated Wolf’s proposal as more of a starting point. And it rapidly became clear that Democrat rank-and-filers would be pushing harder for more.

“I think this is a start, and as we go through the process we need to finds ways we can go even further, ways we can be even more aggressive and progressive and put forward a budget that people can be really proud of,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a newly elected Democrat from Philadelphia, said.

Some of those more progressive initiatives, embedded within a spending plan that Hughes said represented “steady and sure progress forward,” signal that Wolf’s budget is likely in for a harder slog than Republicans initially let on Tuesday.

While he was generally happy with the proposal, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said approval of Wolf’s spending document “is not just going to be a slam dunk.”

And that could end up being true not just among Republicans — but among Wolf’s fellow Democrats as well.

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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.