Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — With the Legislature set to reconvene next week, Gov. Tom Wolf released a broad policy platform Tuesday calling for legal weed, paid family leave, and campaign finance reform.
He asked for the Republican-controlled General Assembly to approve nearly all of the roughly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus left on hazard pay grants, small business aid, rental and utility assistance, and child care.
Then, to replenish the small business funding, the Democratic governor called for lawmakers to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. While Wolf had expressed interest in legalization, this is his first policy pitch based around the policy.
Wolf pointed to the state’s double-digit unemployment rate, amid the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic, to justify the sweeping policy push.
“Our General Assembly needs to act with urgency to counteract all the negative things that have happened as a result of this pandemic,” Wolf said at a press conference in the parking lot of a child care center in suburban Harrisburg.
His address also comes as Wolf and legislators must negotiate and pass a solution to Pennsylvania’s potentially multi-billion budget hole caused by the pandemic. Such a fiscal solution must pass by November, after the fraught 2020 election that could change the balance of power in Harrisburg.
Speaking Tuesday, Wolf also reiterated calls to reform Pennsylvania’s campaign finance and government ethics laws, including limits on campaign giving. Currently, donors can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates, elected officials, and other political organizations.
Much of the proposed spending would go to programs the administration set up this summer to spend the first $2.6 billion in federal assistance.
The proposed spending includes:
- $327 million to help child care providers stay afloat and expand access in underserved areas. Child care was buoyed by $116 million in the state’s first stimulus deal.
- $225 million to expand a state hazard pay grant program for workers making less than $20 an hour. The original program had just $50 million in funding, with about $850 million of requests unmet.
- $325 million for state small business assistance program. The program already has plans to hand out $200 million in help to small businesses across the state, but $600 million in requests remains.
- $100 million for water and electricity utility aid.
- $100 million to the state’s rental assistance program, which was originally authorized for $150 million in June.
- $10 million to reimburse workplace purchases of masks, hand sanitizer and other protective gear.
- $3 million for colleges and universities that partner with education agencies for professional development.
Wolf also asked for lawmakers to pass a paid family leave program and guarantee sick pay for all Pennsylvania workers — a call he’s made throughout his time in office — announced all state employees would receive six weeks of parental leave, and called for a six month liquor tax holiday to help bars and restaurants bottom lines.
Some of Wolf’s proposals have more bipartisan support than others. While paid family leave has received support from both parties, support for marijuana legalization is foggier.
Proponents have often framed legalization as a fiscal issue, creating revenue and saving enforcement costs, but Republican leaders have dismissed approving cannabis as long as it remains a federally scheduled narcotic.
The initial spending deal was negotiated between Wolf and Republican legislative leaders earlier in the pandemic, and when the distance to election day was measured more frequently in months than weeks.
Now, cases are trending downward after a summer surge, and health officials and experts warn new outbreaks could occur, especially amid school re-openings.
But the threat doesn’t seem as imminent, and with control of the General Assembly potentially in the balance, Republican leadership pulled no punches in dismissing Wolf’s platform as nothing more than political grandstanding.
“We continue to be open to productive discussions despite Governor Wolf’s priority of providing campaign cover for House and Senate Democrats instead of governing,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in a statement.
Both Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said they had not been part of the planning of Wolf’s agenda, and continued a common criticism that Wolf has ruled by edict, and without input from the General Assembly, during the pandemic.
“It is disingenuous for this governor to put forward an unaffordable legislative agenda and require taxpayers to bail him out of his unilateral mandates that have devastated their lives and livelihoods,” Benninghoff said in a statement.
Benninghoff’s spokesperson Jason Gottesman added that the $1 billion in remaining stimulus money “remains in a reserve account to deal with any potential emergencies that arise because of COVID-19.”
The money must be spent by Dec. 31, or it returns to the federal government. Gottesman added that Benninghoff is “sensitive” to the deadline.
In a statement, House Democratic leadership said it backed Wolf’s fall agenda.
“Unfortunately, we’ve spent far too much time with a Republican-led Legislature determined to pick fights that only undermine the health and safety of our state,” they said.
Overall, both Wolf and Republicans are holding out hope that the federal government could provide more funding to state and local governments, and also allow for the stimulus money to backfill budget holes.
In June, Pennsylvania passed a temporary $25.8 billion budget that flat funded most state agencies through November. Funding for the rest of the fiscal year, until June 2021, must still be approved.
That could set up a rare lame duck session, where lawmakers who won’t be returning to Harrisburg in 2021 could vote on whether to raise taxes, cut spending, or any other big policy changes, such as legalizing marijuana.
Legislators have been off since early July after months of session in Harrisburg, where the GOP majorities passed numerous bills to reopen swaths of the economy and limit Wolf’s powers during the pandemic.
Wolf vetoed the reopening bills, but occasionally responded by mirroring the vetoed bills with executive action, such as allowing real estate agencies or construction projects to reopen.
The House returns to Harrisburg to hold votes next Tuesday. The Senate is back Sept. 8.
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