York County Republicans: Wolf's budget proposal an improvement, but concerns remain
Despite a spending sticker shock, York County Republican lawmakers shared a more positive tone than in previous years in response to Gov. Tom Wolf's first budget proposal of his second term.
In his Tuesday, Feb. 5, budget address to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature, Wolf emphasized education and workforce improvements in front of a crowd of lawmakers who repeatedly pushed back during the Democrat's first term.
Wolf is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars more for schools as well as a sprinkling of money for new voting machines and programs to improve worker training and the agricultural sector.
“Our challenge demands an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Wolf said. “And this budget proposal itself asks Pennsylvanians to come together — business leaders, educators, students, workers — to address the challenge of renewing our prosperity for another generation.”
New proposal: The proposal includes nearly $500 million in supplemental cash for the current fiscal year along with $1.9 billion in new spending, a 6 percent increase from last year.
While the budget proposal doesn't include any tax increases, Wolf last week laid out a parallel plan to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production — a move that Republicans have consistently resisted — to finance a wide range of projects.
State Rep. Stan Saylor, a Republican from Windsor Township chairing the House Appropriations Committee, said he anticipates negotiating a lower spending number but added it's "the best budget (Wolf's) proposed."
“I think the governor moderated his comments today in a way that is befitting of what he’s seen in the past in the Republican caucus," Saylor said. "I think the key is the governor has set a tone of wanting to work with Republicans."
The extra spending would largely go toward public schools, prisons, pension obligations, health care for the poor, mental health services and social services for children, the elderly and disabled. The administration said the plan carries a half-billion dollars in new initiatives.
To help fund it, Wolf’s administration is counting on tax collections to rise by a solid 3 percent, along with hundreds of millions of dollars from money already appropriated, higher assessments on Medicaid providers and a fee on municipalities that rely only on state troopers to provide police coverage.
Other York County Republicans echoed Saylor's displeasure with the $1.9 billion number, but they also expressed skepticism about whether Wolf is being fully transparent in his proposal.
Republican reservations: State Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican from Dover Township also serving on the appropriations committee, said Wolf transferred roughly $70 million in general funds to the state's special funds, which are often overlooked by those fixated on the $34 billion total spending in the budget.
“That’s a trick to make it look like spending is less than what it really is," Grove said, citing transferred funds from the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and more. "You’re hiding from individuals where you’re spending money.”
With special funds — which are put away for specific purposes and aren't included in the general budget — and other costs, the total operating budget adds up to more than $85 billion, which Grove said he prefers to focus on.
State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York Township Republican serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee, echoed Grove's criticism of the transfer of funds, calling it a "hide and seek approach."
"I always think of this as a starting point," Phillips-Hill said. "I’m very much looking forward to doing a thorough review of the state budget proposal.”
Still, both Republicans commended Wolf for his focus on career technical education and his more moderate, Republican-appeasing approach that contradicted previous years, which were defined by multibillion-dollar tax increases and more.
Education spending: One of the largest chunks found in the spending increases goes toward education. Most of the new money in Wolf’s budget would go to public schools, including $200 million for general operations and instruction.
About $13 million of that would finance a boost in the state’s decades-old minimum wage for teachers from $18,500 to $45,000, a provision officials said would mostly benefit rural school districts.
Schools also would get a combined $145 million for special education, school safety and expanding the number of state-subsidized slots for pre-kindergarten.
Although the idea of increasing school funding sounds appealing, York Suburban School District Superintendent Timothy Williams said he needs to see how much money districts like his would receive before making judgments about Wolf's proposal.
Wolf also proposed a program called TeacherWORKS that would give teachers workplace experience to help staff understand the needs of employers, which Williams said at first glance seems like a good idea.
Although the local superintendent is waiting for more details, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials was quick to praise Wolf's education proposals — to a certain extent.
"The proposed increase for public education emphasizes both the critical importance of our public schools and the continuing financial challenges they face," the association's Tuesday news release stated.
But the association also expressed concerns that the funding doesn't go far enough because of the rising mandated costs related to special education, charter school tuition and pensions, stating, "The annual increases in these three areas alone continue to outpace additional state investment."
— York Dispatch reporter Logan Hullinger contributed to this report. He can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD