Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his final budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/8/22 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).
Gov. Tom Wolf gave his eighth and final budget address last week. Advocates, elected officials, and pundits reacted to it much as they had to Wolf’s previous “state of the Commonwealth” speeches, but a big change in 2022 is the administration is not searching for money to pay for his initiatives.
Many of Wolf’s priorities can be achieved through higher-than-expected state revenues and the influx of federal cash in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The availability of this funding will not make much of a difference in how the General Assembly approaches Wolf’s proposals, however.
The Legislature’s Republican majority began its battle against the Wolf agenda during the budget impasse of 2015, wearing down the Administration as programs were unfunded and providers went unpaid, and generally ignored the Governor’s major initiatives presented in his first term in office.
Wolf was re-elected in 2018 with almost 58% of the vote, but Republicans maintained their majorities in the General Assembly and continued to insist the governor’s priorities did not represent the true desires of the people of Pennsylvania.
The end result has been a wary standoff throughout his second term as the Administration and the General Assembly look for ways to gain an advantage – the governor by the use of his veto pen and the General Assembly by advancing a strategy of amending the state Constitution to deny the Governor a role in setting policy.
Such a situation could be dismissed as politics-as-usual in a state such as Pennsylvania, which has a relatively even partisan split of voters.
But the appearance of a pandemic which has upended lives in the Commonwealth and around the world, combined with the descent of one political party to a level where its national committee calls a violent mob storming the United States Capitol “legitimate political discourse” means there is nothing “usual” about our current political situation.
This year’s budget debate will take place in the midst of a health crisis which has resulted in over 41,000 deaths in Pennsylvania, a severe strain on the Commonwealth’s health care system, and a disproportionate impact on the older population.
Serious elected officials should discuss not only how to prevent a recurrence of a widespread outbreak of disease, but also work to ensure hospitals and long-term care facilities have sufficient staffing and resources to weather another crisis and deliver quality care in the future as changes in Pennsylvania’s demographics result in an older population.
Instead, the instant reaction to Wolf’s address is Senate President Pro Tempore (and GOP gubernatorial candidate) Jake Corman, R-Centre, saying the administration’s managed the pandemic “terribly” and is now trying to “buy back” the support of “alienated voters.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, dismissed COVID-19 restrictions and claimed we are not experiencing a true pandemic because if it was “we’d be pulling dead bodies out of homes.”
Such reactions demonstrate the priorities of the Republican majority in the General Assembly – to ensure wealthy Pennsylvanians can keep as much money as they can in their own pockets and promote policies to increase their wealth at the expense of the bulk of the population.
Corman has repeatedly complained about the Wolf administration’s approach to the pandemic because businesses lost money due to COVID-19 restrictions, blaming the response instead of the disease. He and other Republicans also promote disinformation in the name of “freedom” to appeal to those who selfishly refuse vaccines or to wear masks.
Such rhetoric has become a defining characteristic of those whose main goal seems to be to widen income disparities. It is epitomized in the commercials of wealthy Republican U.S. Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, who brags about questioning “Fauci” while profiting from medical misinformation, and Dave McCormick, who proudly states he is a capitalist while standing on a street in small town Pennsylvania instead of in front of the mansion in Connecticut where he lived while making billions as a hedge fund manager.
Wolf’s priorities in his budget proposals, such as fairer funding for public schools, increased staffing ratios for health and long-term care facilities, and stricter environmental standards, are worth fighting for. But the reality of Republican opposition to policies designed to assist those Pennsylvanians on the wrong end of the wealth gap means the enactment of these goals is a long shot.
Even if Wolf’s ambitious agenda for Pennsylvania in his final year as governor is rejected by the General Assembly, his administration should not be regarded as a failure.
He may not achieve all he wants in the budget he presented, but he has achieved an important legacy as a buffer against the regressive policies of his opponents in the General Assembly. The Commonwealth may not have moved forward as much as the governor’s supporters wished in the past eight years, but, fortunately, we have not careened backwards.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that are important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.
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