WILKES-BARRE — Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday unveiled his election-year budget plan, renewing familiar battles with the Republican-controlled Legislature over imposing a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas and increasing the minimum wage.
One prominent Wyoming Valley Republican found some cause to be optimistic, however.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said Wolf’s fourth budget plan, at least in scope, appears to be the least confrontational submitted by the governor.
“So there is reason to hope an agreement can be reached by the constitutional deadline and avoid the disruption of previous years,” Baker said.
The governor’s proposed budget totals $33.1 billion, which is a $1.1 billion increase over the current year. He called for an additional $225 million in education spending, including more funding for basic, early and special education. The proposal does not include any broad-based tax increases, but does seek to impose a severance tax on the natural gas industry.
Baker said Wolf’s budget includes “some warmed over tax and revenue-raising proposals that failed to attract support in the past, so the overall spending is probably set too high.” She said the governor has picked areas of common priority, such as education, training, and workforce development, to recommend substantial funding increases.
“But the money will not accomplish as much as it should without corresponding changes in policy and program operation,” Baker said. “There are more than a few places in state government where the big problem is not an insufficiency of funds — rather the manner in which the money is used has not kept pace with changes in the economy and our communities and family circumstances.”
Baker said there are clearly areas of common ground, such as the aggressive steps to combat the opioid crisis devastating families and communities in every part of the Commonwealth.
However, Baker said, “it is unfortunate that the governor has continued the tradition of zeroing out programs in agriculture and health care that have proved their value to communities and residents over the years.”
Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, said as budget discussions commence, he plans to work to ensure that investments in education and economic development programs are at the forefront.
“Established northeastern Pennsylvania programs to improve educational opportunities, like the SHINE after-school programs are a perfect match to the Governors’ PA Smart proposal,” Yudichak said.
Yudichak said a responsible budget must adequately fund the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other agencies that support economic activity and growth.
“Environmental permits are required for nearly every energy, construction, environmental remediation, or economic development project in Pennsylvania,” Yudichak said. “We must also continue to support infrastructure and development investments which create jobs.”
In Northeastern Pennsylvania, Yudichak said the construction of the South Valley Parkway has attracted national developers, like Northpoint Development, and nationally acclaimed businesses like Chewy.com, Patagonia, and Adidas, creating thousands of jobs for the residents of northeastern Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, said he was thrilled to hear the governor’s specific commitment to career and technical education that will ultimately lead to family-sustaining jobs for people living in Luzerne County and throughout Pennsylvania.
“Additionally, I know the hardworking people of the 119th Legislative District are pleased the governor’s budget contains no proposed tax increases on their families,” Mullery said. “I understand this is the first step in the budget process. I remain willing to work across the aisle and with the administration to pass a responsible, on-time budget.”
Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, said the governor outlined a prudent budget for the upcoming year, while continuing to enhance support for the state’s educational infrastructure and advancing critical policy initiatives.
“Among these are a modest severance tax on natural gas, an increase in the minimum wage and targeted government downsizing that increases efficiency,” Carroll said.
Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, said she was pleased to hear optimism and positivity from Wolf.
“As a former educator, I share his concerns about ensuring we have a well-prepared workforce, and I do believe we need to invest in technical education,” Boback said.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said Wolf’s proposed plan is a broad effort to strengthen students’ education and provide the workforce training that will elevate the state to compete for high-tech industries and bring family-sustaining wages to Pennsylvania.
Pashinski also supports imposing a Marcellus Shale severance tax.
“We’re simply looking to be fair to the industry with a fair return to the people of Pennsylvania,” Pashinski said. “Every other natural gas producing state has implemented a severance tax and those dollars help fund roads, schools and human services. It’s time to do the right thing for Pennsylvania.”
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, said she likes the idea of spending additional dollars for children’s education, especially for early learning programs which would receive $40 million more in the governor’s proposal.
“But at the same time, I am disappointed there is no investment in Pennsylvania’s community colleges, which play an important role in providing career training,” Toohil said. “There also needs to be some accountability and modernization of our schools, and not just more money thrown at a problem. We are striving to strengthen our education system by ensuring that the money we spend helps to achieve positive outcomes for Pennsylvania’s students.”
Toohil was disappointed the governor decided to eliminate funding for a number of important agricultural research programs, but said she is confident those allocations will be restored.
Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston, said he believes there is a need to continue to re-evaluate priorities and consider policies that will enhance the lives of residents of the 120th District and beyond.
”The No. 1 issue people approach me about is the high cost of property taxes and the burdens they impose on their lives,” Kaufer said. “I am disappointed that the governor did not include property tax reform in his budget outline.”
Kaufer said that earlier this year, he joined with several of House colleagues to announce a plan to reform the state’s “bloated welfare system.” He said the package of bills would give more families an opportunity to improve their quality of life, while tackling the issues of waste, fraud and abuse from within the current system.
“We want to encourage those who can work to get a job, and help them to get off the welfare rolls,” Kaufer said. “These things would help save money and improve our state’s financial status. Now is the time to end the cycle of poverty through job growth.”
The governor’s address marks the beginning of the budget process. The General Assembly will now work on crafting a reasonable and responsible budget, hopefully by the June 30 deadline.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.