Wolf meets with Dems to mend fences, pitch minimum wage hike

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at rally for his Restore PA infrastructure plan Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gov. Tom Wolf met behind closed doors with House Democrats for nearly an hour Monday to mend their recently strained working relationship and to build support for some key legislative priorities. 

Wolf and his legislative allies in the lower chamber talked for about 40 minutes in a members-only meeting Monday afternoon that multiple sources described as productive and cordial, despite tackling some difficult queries — including the governor’s decision to sign a bill that eliminated straight-ticket voting.

According to multiple lawmakers present, other topics, such as a long-sought minimum wage hike, and such priorities as environmental funding, the elimination of General Assistance and the planned closing of state facilities serving Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities, also came up.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Wolf did not answer specific questions, instead painting the summit with fellow Democrats as a first step in building a strong working relationship between the Democrats in the executive and legislative branches.

“What I want to do is propose we work on a much more close basis as we start putting together a budget [in 2020],” Wolf said.

The Democratic governor has been both publicly and privately criticized by House Democrats for what he has — and has not — accomplished early in his second term, and for how he has handled his relationship with his allies.

Wolf negotiating an election reform package with Republicans introducing a vote by mail system while eliminating straight party voting, particularly frustrated House Democrats.

The surprise deal, which many Democrats feared would hurt their own statewide candidates and reduce votes for competitive down-ballot legislative races, led one high-ranking Democrat, Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, to call the package a “betrayal of Democratic constituencies.”

Wolf, according to House Democrats, apologized for not bringing the caucus in sooner.

The recently announced deal to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 from the current $7.25 an hour, was also broached Monday, according to Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware.

He said the caucus discussed different amounts for the wage, but did not go into much more detail.

Labor groups have already expressed disappointment with the deal, such as not letting Pennsylvania’s cities go past the statewide minimum wage. 

Top Pa. labor leader expresses disappointment with proposed Wolf minimum wage deal

Wolf has, according to the Capital-Star and other news outlets, agreed to give up on a controversial overtime rule in exchange for the pay hike. As recently as this summer, Wolf wanted to raise the wage to $12 an hour, and then to $15 an hour by 2025.

The GOP-controlled Senate advanced a $9.50 minimum wage out of committee Monday, but the House, also under GOP control, has so far been much less receptive.

Vitali, a noted environmental advocate who previously has critiqued Wolf’s record on the issue, also asked Wolf about funding for the Department of Environmental Protection in next year’s budget.

 “Wolf answered a lot of questions,” Vitali said. “And I respect him for that.”

His answer echoed many other lawmakers, who said they that the open talk had helped the two sides come together and pick priorities going forward. Most lawmakers agreed that the meeting was a sign of better cooperation to come.

According to one House Democrat who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting, while Wolf admitted mistakes on the election bill, he also matter of factly laid out the current minimum wage deal as the best chance to achieve the top priority.

That Wolf would seek amends while repeating the same deal-making behavior made the lawmaker question if anything had really changed.

Others Democrats had grievances over topics mostly impacting their backyard.

The sudden closure of a state center for the intellectually disabled and a prison in Luzerne County led Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, to tell Wolf that the process was not done in an “acceptable manner.”

Wolf will meet with regional delegations of lawmakers from the different regions of the state later this week, according to House Democratic rank-and-filers

But the pointed questions were still noted.

“It’s like Festivus,” Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, said of the meeting. “Some of us got to hold the Festivus pole.”