Wolf signs budget; Vetoes bill he says hobbled executive power during pandemic

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Capping a fast-paced week of legislative action in the Capitol, Gov. Tom Wolf has signed a $25.8 billion stopgap budget into law, even as he ran his veto pen across a bill the administration’s Democratic allies said would have undercut Wolf’s capacity to manage the pandemic.

The no-tax increase spending plan, approved by the Senate Thursday, and the House on Tuesday, provides five months’ worth of funding across state government, but a full year of funding for K-12 and higher education across the state.

Legislative Democrats who opposed the budget plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 complained that flat funding for public education would lead to local property tax hikes or staff reductions as school districts sought to fill spending gaps.

In a statement released by his office on Friday afternoon, Wolf called the funding plan a partial victory, but said more needed to be done to “to ensure Pennsylvania has the resources it needs to protect key programs and investments.”

“Education must remain a priority even during a pandemic and this budget provides schools with the stability to continue building on the progress we have made to prepare our children for a successful future,” Wolf said. “Reaching an early budget agreement under these challenging circumstances is encouraging as we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19.”

Through midday Friday, the Department of Health had confirmed 70,735 cases of the illness, and 5,464 fatalities, even as more Pennsylvania counties moved toward a partial or full reopening.

The budget also provides $420 million in nursing home assistance; $50 million to combat food insecurity; $225 million in small business grants, and $625 in block grants to help counties suffering budget problems because of the pandemic, the administration said. The initiatives are funded through part of the state’s share of the federal CARES Act.

The accelerated measure pushes off tough decisions until a lame duck session after the November election, giving lawmakers more time to assess the damage to state revenue collections and to await another round of stimulus cash that many hope may be forthcoming from Congress.

In his statement, Wolf alluded to the challenges yet to come, saying that “as the state’s economy begins to reopen from the public health emergency, there are still unanswered questions about the state’s finances, but this agreement is an important step to stabilize our schools and put Pennsylvania on a path to recovery”

In a veto message on the bill given final approval by the Senate on Thursday, Wolf said the bill would have hamstrung his ability to cite businesses that reopen in defiance of state orders and that “prohibition is a legislative infringement on executive authority and violates the separation of powers, which is critical to the proper functioning of our democracy.”

John L. Micek
John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad.