Gov. Tom Wolf, in his last budget proposal before leaving office, asked lawmakers Tuesday to significantly boost funding for public education and raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.
But Republican leaders in Harrisburg, who have often clashed with Wolf in budget negotiations over the years, seemed wary of the Democrat’s $43.7 billion spending plan, worried that the state’s financial position could be put in jeopardy.
Wolf did not call for any tax increases — in fact, his proposal includes a gradual reduction in corporate taxes beginning in 2023.
“These are days of opportunity for our commonwealth,” Wolf said during his budget address. “That’s because, at long last, our fiscal house is in order.”
He cited recent budget surpluses, reflecting on a fiscal turnaround during his seven years as governor.
“We are no longer digging out of a hole,” he added. “We’re ready to build.”
Last week, Wolf unveiled a $1.8 billion plan to spend federal coronavirus relief money on workforce development, small business grants, property tax rebates and other programs.
State GOP leaders, who control both legislative bodies, characterized the proposed budget as an irresponsible spending spree, with House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff saying Wolf is trying to bring “Washington, D.C.-style runaway spending policies to Pennsylvania.”
“Spending billions right now may sound appealing, but that can’t be done in a vacuum,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward said. “Pennsylvanians will pay for that.”
“The governor seems to have drifted off into a fiscal fantasy land where there is zero concern for our financial footing after he is gone,” said House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor.
Democrats, meanwhile, largely commended Wolf for his proposal.
“This budget gives us the opportunity to make the critical investments that Pennsylvania needs in our schools, communities and workforce,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
Sen. Christine Tartaglione, whose district covers parts of Northeast Philadelphia, Juniata and Kensington, said in a statement that the plan “is a step in the right direction and helps fix generational disinvestment in education and programs that help our commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens.”
Wolf’s budget would raise funding for pre-K-to-12th grade education from $10.1 to $11.9 billion, which includes a $1.25 billion boost to the money distributed through Pennsylvania’s Fair Funding Formula.
The injection of new dollars comes after last year’s $416 million increase in state funding for K-12 schools.
“There is so much to be encouraged about in Governor Wolf’s proposal,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Jordan, in a statement Tuesday, asked Wolf and the legislature to allocate more money to address building issues such as asbestos, lead and mold that have long plagued the city’s schools.
“This budget proposal would only begin to address the harm caused by the unmet educational needs of students in our state’s underfunded, low-wealth school districts,” the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center said in a joint statement.
The organizations are representing a group of school districts, parents and nonprofits engaged in an ongoing lawsuit arguing that the state’s education funding system is unconstitutional.
Wolf, in his speech to lawmakers, also advocated for raising the minimum wage — first, to $12 this summer, with incremental 50-cent increases to bring it to $15 in 2028. The state’s current minimum is $7.25 an hour, the lowest allowed by federal law.
“Our failure to increase the minimum wage is costing us dearly,” Wolf said. “When people are able to earn a decent wage, they can contribute to the economic lives of their communities and the commonwealth.”
It’s unclear if the proposal will gain any steam; Republicans have rejected previous efforts to increase the minimum wage.
The governor’s spending plan also incorporates $35 million for grants and other initiatives supporting “community-led gun violence prevention” programs, his office said.
Legislators will spend the next several months negotiating the budget with Wolf ahead of the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.