Wolf secures budget peace, for now, if not campaign promises
HARRISBURG — The House of Representatives had just finished voting the final pieces into place for Pennsylvania’s 2016-17 budget package, and Majority Leader Dave Reed walked next door in the Capitol to share congratulations with Gov. Tom Wolf.
“So this really can work,” a smiling Wolf told Reed when they met Wednesday evening.
A budget package achieved after numerous concessions by Wolf is perhaps the best the Democratic governor can do with Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature. It also marked a sharp turnaround from the record-setting and damaging partisan budget stalemate of the previous year.
There was no change in strategy or philosophy by Wolf, his spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. Instead, Sheridan characterized the governor’s first and second budgets as one continued fight toward the same goal.
“I think what he was trying to do was say, ‘Harrisburg is broken and we need to fix it,’” Sheridan said. “We can’t undo years and years of misguided policymaking in Harrisburg in just 18 months, but we made big progress.”
Wolf’s office has defended his budgets as securing “historic” new funding for all levels of education — roughly $630 million, or 7 percent, more, for preschool through college-level education.
Still, with his second budget under his belt, Wolf has made numerous concessions, and has not achieved many key planks in his 2014 campaign for governor.
This $31.5 billion budget — compared with the $33.3 billion Wolf had initially sought — produced half of the new aid Wolf had sought for public schools after he campaigned on a platform to wipe out wide funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts.
The Education Law Center said it “locks in long-term structural inequities that will continue to leave many of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren behind.”
It squeezes human services and social services. It leaves state government on track for another yawning deficit next year, and it uses questionable one-time sources of stopgap cash to balance, maneuvers Wolf had insisted as recently as Sunday night he would not accept.
He has not made Pennsylvania’s tax structure more progressive. In fact, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center said, the tax package’s heavy reliance on a cigarette tax increase makes the state’s tax structure even less equitable for low-income families.
Wolf has not persuaded lawmakers to impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production. And despite Wolf’s pledges of transparency, he signed bills within hours of the final provisions being made public.
After the budget passed, the Pennsylvania Republican Party took a shot at Wolf, saying “for the second year in a row, Republicans have stood up for Pennsylvanians in the face of Governor Tom Wolf’s far-left agenda.”
Wolf, who kept a low profile during budget negotiations, has not made a public appearance since the Legislature wrapped up the budget Wednesday.
Still, the past three months have been good for Wolf.
He signed legislation legalizing medical marijuana and breaking the state-controlled monopoly on the sale of wine, allowing bottles to be stocked and sold in places like supermarkets.
He agreed to institute a public-school funding formula widely embraced as fairer — although the vast majority of aid still is distributed by a politically bent formula.
And his administration enacted tougher rules on Marcellus Shale drilling.
Perhaps his best budget move came Sunday night, when he announced he would allow a $31 billion spending bill to become law, even without the money to pay for it all. He did so despite a fruitless 18 months of trying to pound a tax increase out of the Legislature.
Wolf’s move was risky. It surprised top lawmakers. It dared a bond downgrade and a lawsuit. But it kept topsy-turvy bipartisan negotiations going, in ways a full or partial veto might not have, some lawmakers said.
Final concessions were made and, within three days, lawmakers passed a tax package.
“He gave us a couple more days and it all worked out,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “He took a risk, but it worked out, so he deserves points for that.”
Corman didn’t want to criticize Wolf — “I’ve done enough of that over the two years,” he said.
“But if I would recommend anything, he probably needed to knock heads a little sooner, and that’s his folks as well as our folks,” Corman said. “It’s pretty easy to play Monday-morning quarterback.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy.