With 6th budget, Wolf gets his progressive mojo back. Will lawmakers come along for the ride? | Analysis

February 4, 2020 3:47 pm

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delivers his sixth budget address to a joint session of the general assembly inside the House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Feb. 4. (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

Gov. Tom Wolf, meet Gov. Tom Wolf.

With more money for gun violence reduction efforts; universal kindergarten; an ambitious higher education grant program aimed at keeping college kids in Pennsylvania; a reboot on a $4.5 billion infrastructure program, and a push for an eventual $15 an hour minimum wage, the York County Democrat rolled out an aggressively progressive budget for the fiscal year that starts this July 1.

“The work ahead will call upon our determination, our creativity, and our courage,” Wolf told a joint session of the state House and Senate Tuesday, setting a conciliatory tone that highlighted past cooperation between the two branches of state government. “But because we cannot build what we cannot envision, today we can begin by imagining the Pennsylvania we can create together – not for some far-off future generation, but for the people we came here to serve – right now.”

By the end of his roughly 45-minute-long address, Wolf, remaining ever genial, pivoted to an explicitly progressive vision, distributing planks to Democratic incumbents and aspirants in the House and Senate, especially those in the increasingly blue Philadelphia suburbs, to run on this fall.

Speaking not long after Wolf wrapped up his remarks, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, called it a “red meat” speech targeting the Democratic base. Wolf handed out “talking points to his supporters,” Corman continued, “which he did just about every time today. And that’s what governors do.”

Five Big Takeaways from Gov. Tom Wolf’s 6th budget address

The speech, which spent its back quarter focused heavily on gun-violence reduction efforts, decrying legislative paralysis on the issue even as more Pennsylvanians lose their lives, was a departure from Wolf’s 2019 budget address, which struck a more collaborative pose, and was met with relatively little pushback from Republicans who’d grown accustomed to waging a battle of inches every spring with the Democratic front office.

But with all 203 seats in the House and half the 50-member Senate up for grabs this fall, and some Democratic lawmakers contending with primary challenges from their left flanks, it was inevitable that Wolf’s speech would come lacquered in a thick coat of election year politics.

In the state House, Democrats are running a two-cycle strategy to winnow down what was once a historically large Republican majority. Democrats in the Senate, now at an eight-seat disadvantage, have a steeper hill to climb after expanding their ranks in 2018.

Democrats capitalized on Trumpian coattails two years ago. And they’re looking to do the same in 2020, banking on an energized base, denied an impeachment win, that will turn out in droves to try to oust President Donald Trump from the White House in November.

“We need that majority,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said in an interview after Wolf’s speech. Asked about Wolf’s funding priorities, the veteran Pittsburgh pol had a quick answer: “They’re our priorities,” he quipped.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, was equally clear-eyed about both the policy and political utility of the spending plan that Wolf had lain before Democrats.

“We have an opportunity to govern, which is clearly our responsibility. And when you govern, it gives you the opportunity to go back to your district and say, ‘These are the things that I’m working on, these are the things I’m trying to get done,'” to voters, Costa observed. “And when you get it done, it makes it easier for folks to get elected, quite frankly.”

In his 6th budget, Wolf mixes old plans with new pitches for college grants, universal kindergarten

As currently proposed, the budget blueprint is a $1.4 billion, or 4.22 percent, increase over current, approved spending. That spending hike is more ambitious than past budget proposals, and more than twice the expected inflation rate for 2020. Republicans slammed the size of the spending hike, saying it would destabilize the state’s recovery from years of financial instability, while increasing taxes and debt.

“This, my friends, is the very definition of deficit spending,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said.

Administration officials said the size of that hike was by design. While past budgets have been balanced on the backs of one-time transfers, raids on special accounts and other accounting gimmicks, officials said Tuesday that they’re no longer kicking the can down the road.

The question for Wolf, who’s doubling down on fossil fuels with his Restore PA infrastructure program, is whether he’ll be able to keep progressives onside. The party’s hard left flank balked at the plan’s reliance on a severance tax on natural gas drillers, castigating the administration for not pivoting to renewables.

Conversely, the question for progressives is whether helping the administration get an ambitious spending plan over the goal line is more important than hewing to doctrine. The stakes this year, as they surely know, are nearly existential.

Freshman Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, one the lower chamber’s most vocally progressive members, said there much to like about Wolf’s plan. But also notable for what was missing were items such as a serious attempt to address mass-transit issues and providing affordable childcare, she said.

“We have a long way to go,” she said.

But first, November.

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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.