The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
Today is June 3, 2019, which means that a mere 27 days remain before the lights blink out on the 2018-19 fiscal year, and then sputter back on again at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 as a new one commences.
The House and Senate are back in this Monday morning town after a primary season/EST seminar/court-ordered course of treatment recess. And presumably everyone’s rested and ready for the number-crunching, horse-trading, ear-bending and elbow-greasing it’ll take to get a completed spending plan onto Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk before that deadline.
If you’re just tuning in, or have forgotten (and, really, who could blame you if you have?), Wolf, a Democrat now serving out his second, and final, four-year term, is pitching a $34.1 billion general fund budget that includes nearly $500 million in spending for the current fiscal year.
And, as the AP reports, Wolf is also looking for legislative authorization for an additional $1.9 billion in new spending. If the budget is enacted as-is, it would raise spending by about 6 percent, over current, approved spending of $32.7 billion.
Thanks to some pretty robust tax collections (Republicans credit the Trump economy. We think that’s like crediting wombats or solar flares — but it’s also a lot to do with online sales tax collections), there’s a lot more money to go around this year. And that always makes getting a deal easier than in years when there isn’t (more on that in a minute).
In a statement released to the Capital-Star on Sunday, Wolf said he “[looks] forward to engaging with the four caucuses over the next few weeks to continue making strides to boost Pennsylvania’s comeback.
“Our commonwealth deserves a fiscally responsible budget that provides new and expanded opportunities for our workers, students, teachers, and communities, and helps all of our citizens to grow and succeed,” he said.
Speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, also pointed the way to a kinder, gentler budget season after a few years of scrappy debates.
“My job is to force compromises and to get stuff accomplished,” Corman told the crowd.
So against that backdrop, here are three things to think about as the budgetary gears really grind to life and lawmakers, staffers, the administration, lobbyists, advocates, and, yes, even writers of snarky daily political newsletters, start the three week sprint to the finish line.
1. The Minimum Wage Debate: Emboldened by Wolf’s 2018 re-election win and larger, more progressive ranks in the state House and Senate, legislative Democrats are putting nearly all their psychic energy and political capital into boosting Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage for the first time in a decade.
Democrats are so serious, in fact, that when we asked one senior Democratic staffer for their list of the top three issues confronting the General Assembly this month, they simply wrote back: “1. Minimum Wage 2. Minimum Wage 3. Minimum Wage.”
Wolf and his Democratic allies have called for raising the wage to $12 an hour by July, and then to $15 an hour by 2025. All six of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have higher minimum wages. Pennsylvania’s minimum, like that of 31 other states, is tied to the current federal minimum. Republicans have firmly rejected the $15/hr wage, but they have signaled they could be open to some happy middle ground.
The Associated Press reports this morning that the wage could become a “bargaining chip” in the months’ debate – signaling its centrality to the budget dialogue.
Senate “Labor and Industry Committee Chairwoman Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, is preparing legislation to boost the minimum wage by a ‘cost-of-living increase,’ which she said would protect business owners from crushing new costs,” the AP reported. The House is not developing a counter-proposal, the AP also reported.
2. Workforce Development: As we’ve noted before, this is one of those initiatives that sounds so awesome because it can pretty much mean whatever the heck anyone wants it to mean.
More cash for community colleges? That’s some workforce development right there. Creating a ‘workforce development command center’ that does … erm … commanding things? That’s some primo workforce development.
Getting private businesses and trade schools to work together to train the next generation of workers for jobs that might not even exist yet? That’s some serious workforce development.
All kidding aside, this is one of the rare areas of public policy that unites both Democrats and Republicans; businesses and unions; and schools and workers. An 11-bill package sailed through the House earlier this year. And both the administration and GOP leaders in the General Assembly are making encouraging noises. Workforce development is, in fact, “first and foremost” for House Republicans, House GOP spokesman Mike Straub told us Sunday.
3. The One with the Rainy Day Fund: So remember, how, a minute ago, we were talking about the state’s finances? Well, back in the Go-Go days of the 1990s, when we were all unironically wearing pleated khakis and waffle-knit Gap t-shirts, listening to Temple of the Dog, and “Friends” was in its first run, Pennsylvania was rolling in dough, and ex-Gov. Tom Ridge was able to sock away spare cash every year into this thing called “The Rainy Day Fund.”
Then the economy crashed in 2001, and again in 2008, and former Gov. Ed Rendell started raiding every state account under the sun to pay for other stuff. And the Rainy Day Fund started looking like that emergency account you keep open just so you can lie to yourself and say that you’re gonna go to Ibiza someday.
Then last year, for the first time of the history of “The Big Bang Theory,” Wolfactually managed to scrape together the shekels to throw some cash into the Rainy Day Fund. It wasn’t enough to go to Ibiza. but maybe … maybe … would have gotten you an afternoon on The High Line with lunch.
So this year, with the state’s Independent Fiscal Office saying that the state’s projected revenue is growing at a rate of 3 percent in fiscal 2019-20, to a total of $35.8 billion, the argument is not over whether to put money into the Rainy Day Fund, but instead, how much.
Republicans, as is their custom, are warning that the state shouldn’t go, like bonkers, or anything. Like, not even a weekend in New York City crazy. But they do understand that Littiz is lovely at this time of the year.
The Wolfies, meanwhile, are saying that the state should continue growing the Rainy Day Fund, and maybe even consider socking away all extra cash after expenses. But there is interest among Democrats in funneling some cash into other state programs. So it’ll be fascinating to see who wins that argument.
So stay tuned. It’s gonna be a fascinating three-plus weeks.
Elizabeth Hardison takes you inside the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, a state agency that literally holds Pennsylvanians’ lives in the balance.
Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender profiles Pennsylvania’s three freshman Republicans who are backstopping the Trump White House on Capitol Hill.
Stephen Caruso has the story on some unusual social media spending by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and what it could signal for his plans in 2020.
On our Commentary Page, state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, makes the case for keeping the state’s Medical Assistance Transportation Program strong and healthy. And, in case you missed it, here’s an argument for Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to change school attendance policies.
The Inquirer looks at whether gentrification ‘enthroned’ Philly Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
PennLive explains why absenteeism could cost some local municipal officials their jobs.
1 in 10 students in Lancaster are ‘exempt’ from vaccinations, LancasterOnline reports.
Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:
The state is spending $3.4 million to help combat a shortage of affordable housing in rural and suburban Pennsylvania, WHYY-FM reports.
The PA Post has its look ahead at the state budget debate.
BillyPenn profiles legendary Philly politics reporter Dave Davies, who’s calling it a career after 37 years in the business.
The Incline has gotten a lovely new redesign. Mazel tov on the new look, friends.
PoliticsPA has the past week’s winners and losers in state government.
Nevada and Washington have joined the ranks of states counting prisoners in their home communities, for Census purposes, Stateline.org reports.
Politico explains why there are now two Democratic primary races.
Roll Call explains some of the other challenges in the upcoming 2020 Census.
What Goes On.
The House and Senate both gavel in at 1 p.m. to get the new working week rolling.
10:30 a.m., Main Rotunda: Rally for assistive technology for people with disabilities
11 a.m., Media Center: Senate Dems on something called the ‘TRU’ bill.
11 a.m., East Rotunda: The Special Olympics Bocce Challenge (We’re so there)
11:30 a.m., LG’s Porch: Center for Rural PA on broadband internet access — in a famous wiFi deadzone.
12 p.m., Main Rotunda: Annual ABATE rally
12:30 p.m., Media Center: Wolf administration, Sen. Robert M. ‘Tommy’ Tomlinson, R-Bucks, talks about the impact of ‘illegal skill games.’ Because, obviously, someone at PARX-Bensalem has a bee in their bonnet over someone’s office pool.
What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
7:30 a.m.: Golf outing for Rep. Tim Hennessey
11:30 a.m.: Luncheon for Rep. Frank Farry
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Sara Innamorato
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Scott Conklin
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Sen. Lisa Boscola
6 p.m.: House Republican Campaign Committee ‘Round Up’
Ride the circuit, give at the max, and you’re out an only mildly preposterous $9,500 today.
As Stephen Caruso will attest, this is our favorite song at the moment. Yes, it’s completely ridiculous. And, yes, that is Justin Bieber singing about baboons. It’s L’il Dicky and Friends and “Earth.” And all proceeds go to climate change. Which makes it worth every moronic chuckle you’re going to get out of it.
Monday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Because the Stanley Cup Finals are spooling out at a leisurely rate of one game every 36.5 days (or so it seems), here’s something from baseball. We’re halfway tempted to tune into the NBA finals. That series could be over faster — and at least the Bruins aren’t in it.
And now you’re up to date.
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