Gov. Tom Wolf gives his eighth, and final, budget speech to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/8/22 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).
As he took to the podium on Tuesday morning to deliver his final budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate, it was inevitable that Gov. Tom Wolf would take a valedictory lap.
In a brisk two minutes of an economical, nearly 21-minute speech, the York County Democrat ran down a shopping list of achievements — some done in concert with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, some not — that included more money for public education, trimming the ranks of the uninsured, cutting the state’s prison population, and reducing the state’s carbon footprint.
Mentions of pension reforms and the ability to buy wine and beer in the grocery store had to be taken with a shot and chaser of reality — Wolf vetoed earlier versions of both during the interminable debate over his first budget in 2015.
But, hey, these things take time.
Wolf hearkened back to that bruising debate, mentioning the “nine-month budget impasse,” but not mentioning his 50 percent share of responsibility, and adding that, “in the years since, there’s certainly been plenty of wrangling, arguing, negotiating, and plain old yelling in the halls of our Capitol.
“But we stuck it out, Democrats and Republicans,” he continued. “We didn’t give up on each other. We didn’t give up on Pennsylvania. And now look how far we’ve come.”
Wolf cast those achievements against the background of an uncertain economy and the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In at least the case of the former, the commonwealth has found its way to calmer shores, Wolf argued, pointing to healthy tax collections and what he described as a conscientious stewardship of the state’s bottom line.
The presence of masks in the crowd was a reminder that, while it might be receding for now, the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere close to over. And in a jarring reminder of the partisanship that also has marked that debate, the divide between mask-wearers and those who did not, with a handful of exceptions, cleaved down the middle of the Republican-controlled chamber
The glance in the rearview dispensed with, Wolf trained his attentions on the road ahead, and on the legacy he wants to leave behind after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four year-terms. Inevitably, some of those proposals were a greatest hits collection of the Wolf agenda — raising the minimum wage and a college scholarship program funded by the state’s horse-racing industry.
Otherwise, Wolf swung for the fences, proposing that the state burn through its remaining $2.2 billion in federal stimulus money on programs intended to both meet an immediate need and to help the state continue its recovery from the pandemic.
That includes $35 million in community gun violence reduction programs for cities such as Philadelphia that have seen an explosion of gun homicides; $32.3 million in aid to serve people with intellectual disabilities and autism who are currently on a state waiting list, and $10 million to establish a statewide Disaster Assistance Fund to aid communities struck by extreme weather.
And it wouldn’t be a Wolf budget without a new infusion of cash for education. The spending blueprint for the fiscal year that takes effect on July 1 calls for $1.55 billion in new education funding spread across both K-12 and higher education.
In his speech, Wolf cast his proposals as a reward for years of fiscal discipline as the state climbed out of a structural deficit of as much as $3 billion, saying, “we can do it without raising taxes one penny. That is the opportunity we’ve earned. Now it’s time to seize it.”
He acknowledged that winning passage of his plans wouldn’t be easy, joking that Republican lawmakers would soon “run out into the hallway to take shots at the pieces of my budget they don’t like,” adding, “That’s okay. Because a lot of those same people have brought some really good ideas to the table, and some of those good ideas are already part of my proposal.”
And Republicans weren’t hesitant about taking Wolf up on his invitation, dismissing his budget outline as a “Fantasy Island.”
That might have caused older viewers to nod in agreement, even as their grandkids wondered what the old white men were talking about.
“It looks nice. It feels nice. But it’s not based in reality,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who’s one of roughly a dozen Republicans gunning to succeed Wolf. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, dropped a “Popeye” reference, warning about what she said was the spend-now, pay-later nature of Wolf’s proposal.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, batted away the GOP’s grousing.
“They don’t want to spend money when we don’t have it, and they don’t want to spend money when we do have it,” Hughes, who’s been one of the administration’s staunchest allies in the upper chamber, quipped. ” … This gives us the opportunity to make investments in jobs and schools. You get returns when you make those investments.”
In a conciliatory closing note that also referenced the dark partisanship that’s marred our politics from Congress, the state Capitol and even local school boards over the last few years, Wolf asked Republicans for cooperation, entreating them to remind “the world that democracy works. And let’s do that with this budget.
“This is the last opportunity for this group to convince Pennsylvanians that we can work together to do some truly important things for the people we were sent here to serve,” he said. “We have a chance here in Pennsylvania to make a substantial contribution to our democracy.”
It was a noble sentiment.
But as Wolf looked forward by looking backward on his nearly eight years at the helm, the chances of history repeating itself looked pretty well guaranteed.
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