Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with the press. (Commonwealth Media Services photo)
(*This story was updated at 3:11 p.m. on Wednesday, 2/2/22, to include additional reporting.)
Calling on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a $1.7 billion spending blueprint to help Pennsylvania businesses, workers, and families.
The proposal, which has support from legislative Democrats, comes less than a week ahead of Wolf’s expected 2022-23 budget address. The plan would use American Rescue Plan money allocated to Pennsylvania last year to help with pandemic recovery, business and worker support, and climate action.
“Our commonwealth is sitting on more money and millions of dollars more, additional federal aid, that could actually help Pennsylvanians thrive. That money is sitting around right now — about $2.2 billion of it — not helping anyone,” Wolf told reporters during a Wednesday press conference. “And at a time when the people of this commonwealth are still hurting from the pandemic, I think that’s wrong.”
Wolf’s spending proposal, announced two days after legislative Democrats introduced a $3.75 billion education blueprint that would use $1 billion in unspent American Rescue fund dollars, would allocate:
- $500 million to the Pennsylvania Opportunity Program, a new initiative that would provide workers and families with relief to help pay for childcare, household expenses, and career development
- $225 million to the COVID Relief Statewide Small Business Assistance Program, prioritizing women- and minority-owned businesses and rural communities. Wolf proposes to recapitalize the program at $225 million to help 11,000 businesses
- $204 million to the Property Tax Rent Rebate Program to help low-income renters and homeowners. The Wolf administration estimates that 466,000 Pennsylvanians would receive an additional average rebate of $475.
- $325 million to help support health care workers with $250 million for long-term care recruitment and retention incentives and career development opportunities, $40 million for the behavioral health workforce to expand county mental health programs, and $35 million to expand the student loan forgiveness program
- $450 million to help conservation, recreation, preservation, community revitalization, and climate action projects. The Wolf administration proposes new funding for the Growing Greener conservation and recreation program and agriculture conservation programs, such as the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program and the Agriculture Conservation Excellence Grant Program.
“We should not do nothing,” Wolf, who also vowed to leave Pennsylvania with a budget surplus when he leaves office next year, said.
House and Senate Democrats praised the proposal, urging their Republican colleagues, who have stressed saving funds to address future needs, to support the initiative. Democrats argued that the federal relief funds should help workers, businesses, and families now — not be stocked away.
“Now is better than later,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said. “We could say let’s wait and see what happens next year. Let’s wait and see what happens the year after that, or we could be responsible stewards and rise to the occasion of the third year of this pandemic being responsive and introducing the governor’s plan.”
Minutes after Wolf’s announcement, House GOP leadership issued a statement, saying Republican lawmakers have been the “line of defense against progressive fiscal policies that would squander taxpayer resources.”
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Stan Saylor, R-York, added that the spending proposals from Wolf and Democrats were “developed in a fiscal fantasy land where concern for future fiscal years apparently doesn’t exist.”
State Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature isn’t used to having conversations about how to spend excess funds, saying: “We no longer even seem to have the imagination or the creativity or the political will to listen to the suffering and concerns of our constituents and to address these challenges.”
The plan announced Wednesday, Wolf said, is separate from his upcoming budget address. But the governor has promoted a projected $6 to $7 million budget surplus by the end of the current fiscal year, saying Pennsylvania should continue to implement relief plans such as the bipartisan health care and front-line worker initiative signed into law last week.
Republicans have cautioned against calls to spend the funds. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said at a press conference last week that while the state’s growing surplus might look good in the short run, current reserves need to cover future bills.
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