Wolf signs $34 billion budget full of bipartisan wins, but missing progressive priorities

Democratic legislators gather around Gov. Tom Wolf at a Capitol press conference. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a $34 billion budget package Friday that increases funding for public education, saves money for the next recession, and doesn’t raise taxes.

The agreement came after a week of smooth sailing, punctuated by a few surprise blowups and mishaps. Most lawmakers agreed the on-time budget was a sign of a functioning, albeit divided, government.

The spending plan is a 1.8 percent increase over last year, and is just $149 million less than Wolf’s initial ask. It includes no new taxes.

The plan includes:

  • $160 million more in basic education funding — $40 million less than what Wolf proposed
  • A $330 million deposit in the state’s rainy day fund
  • $25 million to expand the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit
  • Another $60 million for school safety grants, which matches last year’s allocation
  • Another $40 million for STEM education, apprenticeship programs, and to support career and technical education
  • A two percent increase in funding for Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities, the four state-related universities — Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln — and state community colleges.
  • $12 million for a two percent raise for home care workers, effective 2020
  • A $5 million bump for state libraries, $1.7 million more for domestic violence services, and $1 million more for rape crisis centers — all roughly 10 percent bumps.

“It’s a very good blueprint,” House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Friday. 

The budget package also includes myriad policy proposals, including: 

  • A state health care marketplace in line with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, not part of the budget proper but negotiated at the same time
  • A $23 million state farm bill, including $5 million for dairy-related projects, introduced in February and passed alongside the budget
  • A change in the compulsory age range for children to attend school from eight to 17 to age six to 18
  • A temporary preemption of local policies to tax or ban single-use plastic products until the conclusion of a state study
  • Immunity for college students who report sexual violence on campus while drinking underge or using drugs at the time
  • An expansion of higher education benefits to the spouses and children of Pennsylvania National Guard members who continue their enlistment for an extra six years

The lack of any major progressive wins, like a minimum wage increase, was a running source of frustration for Democrats and state activists. The budget bills passed both chambers with wide bipartisan margins, with most vocal opposition coming from members of the governor’s own party.

Chief among the complaints was the lack of a minimum wage bump, which Wolf asked for in his February budget address. The budget also eliminates the General Assistance program, which makes small cash payments to very poor people with disabilities and individuals in addiction treatment.

At the Wolf administration’s suggestion, the budget also moves money designated for environmental projects or causes into the general administrative funding of state regulatory agencies.

Fifty-five Democrats in the House and eight in the Senate voted against the spending bill, while vocally critiquing it.

“I’m hopeful in the future we can come up with a budget that will really support working people in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, told the Capital-Star.

Wolf said he understood the frustration among Democrats who think the budget doesn’t go far enough, but added that his first term — which included protracted budget battles over ambitious and liberal proposals — shaped his perspective.

He pointed to the more than $1 billion investment into public education under his administration, the new health care exchange, and Medicaid expansion to argue “we are a much more progressive state than five years ago.”

At a press event on Friday, Wolf also touted a historic investment in early education and childcare. The state’s Pre-K Counts initiative got a $25 million boost in this year’s budget, which will allow 2,200 more children to enroll in publicly subsidized pre-K programs. A $5 million increase to the Head Start budget will create 465 new slots in classrooms across the state.

But at least one of Wolf’s pet education proposals didn’t make it into the final budget: spending $14 million to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum teacher salary to $45,000 per year. Even though the idea found little support among the Republican leaders in the General Assembly, Wolf said he planned to resurrect the effort in the future. 

“If we want people to fill the most important job in our economy, we need to invest,” Wolf said on Friday. “And an important part of that is making sure the compensation is adequate.”

Looking forward, Wolf singled out the minimum wage and the lack of LGBTQ non-discrimination protections as top priorities that, in his estimation, embarrass the state and would garner the support of his party.

“I acknowledge and I think the Democrats in both chambers were right to say, ‘Ya know, we’re not there yet,’” Wolf said. “And I take that challenge seriously.”

Still, state progressives were swift in their condemnation of the budget. Keystone Progress, a state activist group, called the budget disappointing for Wolf’s priorities, but “absolutely devastating to the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.”

Many Republicans championed the budget as an example of bipartisanship at work, with increased education funding and no new taxes. 

And compared to the months-long budget impasses from Wolf’s earlier years, some veteran lawmakers were happy for an on-time budget, buoyed by the strong economy, that meant the state could squirrel away funds for a rainy day.

“I say it’s like children,” Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, said of the budget process. “The first one, you want to make sure it’s perfect. By the time you have three or four of five like me you realize, ya know, it’s a mixed bag.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate will now begin a nearly three-month summer recess at home in their districts. 

When they return in September for the fall session, many Capitol insiders expect new talks to begin on a number of big issues, from the minimum wage to energy policy.

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