Wolf aims for smooth landing for election-year budget
HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will roll out his fourth and final first-term budget proposal, an election-year plan expected to be relatively restrained after three years dominated by drawn-out partisan fights with the Republican-controlled Legislature over how to plug gaping deficits.
Administration officials and lawmakers describe the plan being released Tuesday as one that will carry no major new policy initiatives. Rather, Wolf is expected to use his budget to highlight priorities and cement accomplishments, rather than risk the partisan acrimony that plagued the first three years. A smooth landing for his budget could give Wolf a big boost as he campaigns for a second term.
A look at what Wolf will propose in his 2018-19 budget plan to lawmakers:
Bottom line: Spending under Wolf’s proposal would rise to nearly $33 billion, or almost 3 percent, with no increases in taxes on sales and income, the state’s two biggest sources of revenue.
The deficit: Wolf insists he has dealt with Pennsylvania’s post-recession deficit, and needs no tax increase or cash infusion to maintain the state’s current programs. There are reasons for optimism, just a year after the state suffered its largest cash shortfall since the recession.
Revenue growth is expected to be better than it has been since Wolf’s first year in office. Key cost pressures — pension obligations, prisons and health care for the poor — also are easing.
Meanwhile, a grab bag of tax and fee increases approved by lawmakers in the past 19 months — after Republicans rejected two Wolf requests for multibillion-dollar tax increases — is providing about $1 billion a year. Still, the state is borrowing $1.7 billion to plug last year’s shortfall and took out another $600 million in short-term borrowing from the treasury to tide it over until spring.
Education: Wolf will seek another $225 million to push total new dollars for education under his administration to above $1 billion a year, or more than halfway toward his original goal of $2 billion.
Much of the increase — $100 million, a nearly 2 percent bump — would for public school instruction and operations. Another $50 million would go toward a new effort to boost computer and industrial skills training in high schools and for high school graduates who don’t want to attend a four-year college.
State police service: Wolf will renew his call for municipalities that don’t have their own full-time police force to pay a $25 per-person fee, or about $63 million total, to help pay for state police coverage that is currently supported, perhaps unconstitutionally, by $778 million in highway construction funds. Republican lawmakers, who represent most of the 3.3 million residents who receive full-time or part-time state police coverage, rejected Wolf’s proposal last year.
Children, elderly and disabled: Wolf will request an extra $230 million for programs that help provide services at home for the elderly and disabled. He also will seek an extra $25 million, or 16 percent more, to help subsidize child care for low-income working parents.
Natural gas drilling: For a fourth straight year, Wolf will propose a new tax on production of Marcellus Shale natural gas. Wolf administration officials said his proposal will resemble one approved by the Senate last July, which would raise substantially less money than what Wolf has sought previously.
Opioid addiction: The Wolf administration will seek tens of millions of dollars more for opioid-addiction treatment and specialty drug courts. That’s on top of the administration’s efforts — pegged at $76 million last year — to fight a crisis that coroners believe claimed more lives last year than it did in 2016.
Agency mergers: Wolf will renew a request to merge the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health into one agency. That plan stalled in the Legislature last year. He is giving up on including the Department of Aging and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs in that merger.
Politics: This year’s budget politics still could be supercharged. Wolf is running for a second term and, as of Friday, a dozen sitting lawmakers had announced plans to seek higher office. That includes House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, who is vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Wolf.