In his 6th budget, Wolf mixes old plans with new pitches for college grants, universal kindergarten

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delivers his sixth budget address to a joint session of the general assembly inside the House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, December 13, 2019 (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

One year ago, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a budget proposal that drew more applause from Republicans than from members of his own Democratic Party.

Now, in his sixth budget address, Wolf doubled down on his self-proclaimed title as the “education governor” by pushing progressive policies for learners from cradle to college, as well as cash infusions for gun violence reduction initiatives and workforce development programs. 

“This budget is a blueprint for unleashing a new wave of prosperity for our Commonwealth,” Wolf said Tuesday, speaking to the combined General Assembly in Harrisburg. “It will make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of people. And, folks, we can actually do this – together.”

The $36 billion budget Wolf proposed would take effect July 1. It represents a $1.4 billion — or 4.2 percent — spending increase from the state’s current spending plan. 

The governor renewed his call for a new tax on natural gas production but did not propose any tax hikes, saying revenue surpluses generated by a strong economy and low unemployment would allow for a balanced budget.

The address included policies Wolf has pitched, unsuccessfully, each year since his first budget presentation in 2015: a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour and a fee on municipalities to fund state police protection.

But it also included new proposals likely to meet resistance in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, including calls to tighten charter school funding and a new scholarship program for state university graduates who agree to work in Pennsylvania.

Early pushback

Wolf proposed funding the new scholarship program, named after Pennsylvania native and journalist Nellie Bly, at $200 million in its first year to provide need-based aid to cover tuition, books and supplies for low- and middle-income students. Scholarship recipients must stay in the Keystone State for as many years as they received assistance.

The program would be funded by transferring money from a state-administered fund for the horse racing industry — a proposal that drew quick criticism from industry advocates, which has deep pockets, and significant influence, in the General Assembly.

In a statement, Pete Peterson, executive director of Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, said the proposed transfer would be the ”end of horse racing in Pennsylvania” and eviscerate funding for racing awards. 

The fund comes from an assessment on casinos approved when Pennsylvania legalized gambling in 2004. Peterson also said lawmakers would have to change state law to make transfers from the fund legal.

Wolf’s budget also drew early pushback on Tuesday from charter school proponents, who say legislation his office unveiled this week would bankrupt charter schools.

More than 400,000 students across the Commonwealth are enrolled in charter schools, which are privately run but funded by public school districts.

Wolf’s bill would change how charter schools calculate their tuition rates and special education payments, saving school districts a combined $280 million in charter school transfers, according to estimates from his administration.

Ana Myers, executive director of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement Tuesday that the bill “would slash [charter school] funding to a point where it will be difficult for charters to provide the educational, emotional and physical services [their students] need.”

Wolf also used his budget address to highlight additional funding for gun-violence prevention programs, including $6 million in grants to community-based gun violence prevention programs and $4 million to the Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force.

He also renewed calls to pass gun control — such as universal background checks, mandatory reporting of lost and stolen firearms, and an extreme risk protection law. Those proposals enjoy bipartisan support in the General Assembly but typically stall in committees. 

“No law can eliminate every act of gun violence,” Wolf said. “But the steps I’m proposing are supported by the evidence – and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians. We can pass them tomorrow, and, by doing so, we could make our Commonwealth safer.” 

What comes next?

Over the next month, officials from the Wolf administration will appear before the House and Senate appropriation committees to field questions about their programs and defend the allocations Wolf proposed in his draft spending plan.

The legislature has until June 30 to approve the 2020-2021 budget. Until then, Wolf and Republican leaders from the House and Senate will negotiate the budget details and their legislative priorities. 

Some of the annual fixtures of Wolf’s budget proposals — such as the wage hike and gas extraction tax — have received Senate votes in compromises Wolf brokered with leaders in the Republican-controlled chambers.

 But both faltered in the House, which hasn’t agreed to most of Wolf’s deals.

Democrats narrowed their majorities in 2018 and hope to pick up more seats in the 2020 elections.