Gov. Wolf pitches $2.6 billion spending increase

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his 2020-21 budget address in the House of Representatives as Speaker Mike Turzai, left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman look on, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. Photo by Joe Hermitt/PennLive/The Patriot-News via AP

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday released his 2020-21 state budget proposal, including a total of about $36 billion in spending — a $2.6 billion increase over this year's budget. 

Republicans quickly pushed back against  Wolf's proposed 7.6% boost in state spending. 

In his budget address Tuesday, Feb. 4, Wolf spent a large chunk of time talking about education funding, including a reform of the charter school funding formula that he's sought for years.

"It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field," Wolf said, claiming his reforms would save $280 million a year.

Overall, Wolf called for $435 million in new education funding.

The governor’s proposal would include a $100 million increase in basic education funding, a $25 million increase in special education funding and a $30 million increase in early childhood education funding.

Republican lawmakers responded by saying the governor was leveling new, unfunded mandates on school districts. 

"Having served as a school board director, I can tell you that mandating these things on public schools — all it does is increase costs," State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said.

Wolf has also called for a $1 billion investment in fixing toxic school buildings and $60 million in state tuition grant funding.

Wolf's proposed budget also would allot $200 million for Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education scholarships — which would apply to 14 universities in the state. He plans to do this by repurposing tax dollars from the Horse Racing Development Fund.

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The governor additionally is asking for an expansion of "universal, no-cost, full-day kindergarten" to be available for every child in the state.

"There is not a parent in this chamber who doesn’t want every opportunity — every opportunity — for their children," Wolf said. "And there isn’t a parent in this commonwealth who should have to settle for anything less."

That idea received a warm reception from both chambers, said House GOP spokesman Mike Straub, but it's unclear how it would be paid for or if the costs would just fall to local taxpayers. 

Some Republican lawmakers panned the budget proposal's price tag, saying it relies on deficit spending.

Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said Wolf's proposal would add billions to the state's debt. 

It's also the first time in her five-year tenure that the governor had proposed the budget "gimmick" of deficit spending, Phillips-Hill said.

"I really feel like taxpayers have had enough of the budget shenanigans," Phillips-Hill said, calling the move "questionably constitutional, incredibly irresponsible and very dangerous for the future."

The allocation of more than $400 million in new education spending met the expectations of Education Voters of PA and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, which requested at least $100 million more for basic education.

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Even with ample funding, state advocacy organizations and education associations recognize that mandated costs far outweigh the funding coming in — particularly pensions, charter tuition and special education costs.

“We’re trying to play catch-up here, and we’re not gaining ground,” said Joseph Clapper, assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania Principals Association. “We believe that this particular budget proposal misses the mark a little bit in terms of moving the ball forward.”

The most pressing need is charter funding reform, according to advocates for public schools. 

PASBO in its January joint budget report with the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators showed in five years, the state’s charter tuition costs are projected to reach $3 billion.

Since the funding formula is not based on actual cost per student, districts overpaid by $100 million for special education charter students in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Ana Meyers, executive director of state charter advocacy organization Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said in a news release that Wolf's proposed changes to charter school funding fly in the face of substantial negotiations between charter school advocates and state officials. 

"It is clear that Gov. Wolf’s administration was not negotiating with us in good faith," she stated.

Republican lawmakers have said it's noteworthy that Wolf has repeatedly floated several of his proposals over the past few years, but they never made it through the Legislature.

Wolf is still counting on $4 billion from a natural gas industry severance tax that is yet to exist, assuming that revenue will be there, Straub said.

The budget projects a 4.5% increase in tax collections to $37.3 billion, before refunds,  but it does not increase tax rates on sales or income, the state’s two biggest sources of revenue, according to a report from The Associated Press.