Weed, ethics and a natural gas tax: Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021 plan for Pennsylvania, explained

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Since Gov. Tom Wolf won’t be appearing in person before lawmakers next week for his annual budget address, he took the time to lay out his priorities for the commonwealth Thursday morning.

While highlighting past bipartisan successes on criminal justice reform, medical marijuana, and mail-in ballots, Wolf said he wanted to begin negotiating anew with the Republican-controlled General Assembly to lower barriers for Pennsylvanians in need of assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the pitch, delivered during a video press conference, featured few new ideas. Instead, Wolf focused on repackaging proposals he has pitched time and time and time again to the Legislature. Some passed the  GOP-controlled Senate before dying in the House. Others were never even taken up.

Here’s a run down of some of what Wolf asked for:

$15 an hour — in six years

Currently, the state minimum wage is at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, where it has sat since 2009. Repeating a push he’s made every year, Wolf said he wanted a $12 state minimum wage, followed by annual 50 cent increases until the wage is $15 an hour in 2027.

Such an increase would put billions of dollars into low-wage workers’ pockets child care, a non-partisan state research agency found. But opponents argue it would also lead to some job losses and be a burden for struggling businesses amid the pandemic.

Wolf has called for a wage increase every year since he was first elected in 2014. A compromise bill to increase the wage to $9.50 in late 2019 passed the state Senate, but died in the House.

Weed!

Repeating a call he first made in 2019, Wolf asked for the state to legalize recreational marijuana. Sales taxes on it would then buoy the state’s coffers, which routinely run a deficit.

Polling has found that legalizing weed is popular with voters in both parties, and neighboring New Jersey made it legal to toke last year.

But Republican leadership in both chambers drew a line against legalization in 2019, one that they’ve yet to show any sign of retreating.

Re-Restore PA

In 2019, Wolf called for a $4.5 billion state infrastructure plan to fund bridges, broadband, and blight removal, among other things, that he christened Restore PA. It would be funded with bonds, backed by 20 years of revenues from a new tax on natural gas production.

That original plan was criticized by conservatives in both parties, often allied with the natural gas industry, who oppose any new levy on natural gas, and critics on the left, who don’t want state finances to depend on the future success of climate change-driving fossil fuels.

But now with Democratic President Joe Biden, Wolf said Thursday those needed investments could be addressed with federal funds from a future infrastructure package.

Instead, Wolf called for the tax-and-bond scheme to reinforce workforce development programs, such as job retraining and apprenticeships, as well as expand access to child care.

The rejiggered plan unveiled Thursday was met with early criticism from Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats and the business community who still bristled at taxing gas, some of which goes to producing single-use medical plastics, among other things.

Wolf has called for a severance tax every year since taking office in 2015. It received a vote once, passing the Senate as part of a failed budget deal in the summer 2017.

Electoral reform

Wolf said Thursday he wanted to, once again, give counties time to count mail-in ballots before election day.

Had it been in place last November, such a policy would have let counties release more accurate election tallies earlier, preventing the uncertainty that former President Donald Trump and some Republicans seized on to stoke doubt in the 2020 election results. 

While county election officials identified this early on as a priority, Wolf and Republicans did not agree to a deal and settled their disputes of election law in court. No changes was made to county’s timeline to process ballots, either.

Wolf also called Thursday for same-day voter registration, and stricter voter intimidation laws. Republicans, meanwhile, are conducting hearings on the 2020 election with an eye on making as of yet unspecified changes to state election law.

State ethics reform

After the most expensive state legislative cycle in Pennsylvania history — more than $44 million raised — Wolf, a prolific fundraiser himself, also repeated a call for campaign finance reform.

Under state law, there are no limits on the amount of money political action committees and individuals can give to candidates.

He also asked for a lobbying ban on consultants who fundraise and run political campaigns, and for stricter pay-to-play laws, as well as a legislative gift ban and stricter legislative expense reporting.

Anything Else?

Yup! Wolf’s policy pitch also asked for reforms to criminal justice, health care, and corporate taxes. You can read the whole platform here.

What’s Next?

At least one part of the plan — a $145 million grant program for restaurants, bars and hotels — could reach Wolf’s desk as soon as next week.

Pa. General Assembly advances $912M COVID aid package

In a statement, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said Wolf’s announcement was “as disappointing as it was unsurprising.” He instead pressed for Wolf to singularly focus on vaccine distribution.

Wolf has opted for a decentralized vaccine program. He has argued it will more efficiently  distribute the eventual 24 million shots needed to vaccinate every Pennsylvania than a centralized effort.

But in the short term, the state ranks in the bottom half among states for distributing the roughly 1.5 million shots it’s received from the federal government so far.

Wolf’s full budget address will be available Tuesday, as well as the dollars and cents of his spending proposal.

Then, the House and Senate hold budget hearings with administration officials to go over the proposal before negotiations — held behind closed doors — begin in earnest. 

The final budget must be passed by the Republican Legislature and signed by Wolf by June 30. Other proposals, from pet projects to wholesale policy rewrites, sometimes accompany the document.

“Between now and then we’ll be haggling and arguing and debating,” Wolf said.