Democrats are happy with Wolf’s budget proposal — but want to go further

Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, applauds during Gov. Tom Wolf's budget address. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

The reaction from Gov. Tom Wolf’s own party to his Tuesday budget address?

It’s a start.

Members of the Democratic minority from both chambers sees Wolf’s proposed budget as an uncontroversial kickoff to negotiations they hope to expand to include more policies in the coming months.

“It’s consistent with the previous budgets of the governor, which is steady and sure progress forward,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I think there are a number of us who would like to have seen a much more robust investment in our basic education spending priorities,” the Philadelphia senator added.” I think there are number of us who would have liked to see a much more robust presentation around the natural gas severance tax.”

“The governor’s budget moves us in the right direction, but there is still more to go,” Rep. Matt Bradford, Hughes’ House counterpart, added in a floor speech following the address.

The budget includes $200 million for state public schools, with about $14 million earmarked to raise teachers’ salaries to a minimum of $45,000 a year. It also sets aside millions for workforce development and early childhood education.

In a statement, House Democratic leadership said it was “pleased” with Wolf’s call for continued criminal justice reform, echoing his inaugural speech.

But Wolf led his remarks Tuesday by plainly stating that he was not asking for new taxes. A standing ovation started with lawmakers on the right of the aisle before meekly spreading to the left.

While Wolf is asking for a minimum wage increase to $12 by July 1, he made no mention of the proposal during his address.

Also absent was a call for a severance tax. Wolf instead floated an infrastructure proposal last week that asks the General Assembly to OK $4.5 billion in bonds, backed by a tax on natural gas, to make infrastructure improvements like expanded state broadband.

“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.

He hopes as negotiations continue, the state will look as deeply at addressing poverty as it has at the opioid crisis or helping workers build new skills.

Another newly elected Democrat, Rep. Danielle Friel Otten of Chester, said that she is in Harrisburg to “fight for progressive values, and this is just the beginning of the conversation” on issues like public education and renewable energy.

Even getting a minimum wage hike would be a big accomplishment, according to Senate Majority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. Pennsylvania’s is still sitting at $7.25, the federal minimum, after getting dragged upwards under the Obama-era policy change.

“Quite frankly it’s unconscionable that Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that has not raised its minimum wage,” Costa said in a video released by his office.

Ohio’s minimum is the lowest of all of Pennsylvania’s neighbors, at $8.55.

Underneath any concerns from the Democratic caucus’ burgeoning left wing is an understanding of the political reality — in both chambers, they are in the minority. Compromise must be in the cards for any of the party’s goals to be realized, and Wolf’s first term saw some progressive wins like a Clean Slate law that seals low-level criminal records. 

With those accomplishments from the past four years in mind, some Democrats are willing to wait and see how the next few months pan out.

“It was very clearly an olive branch extension approach” from Wolf, Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, said. He added: “It’s worked for him.”

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