EDITORIAL: Big issues still in flux as budget deadline looms

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks Wednesday, March 20, 2019, at the York Fairgrounds as part of his tour across the commonwealth to stump for "Restore Pennsylvania," a $4.5 billion infrastructure plan. He appeared with the abandoned Manna Pro Corporation grain elevator as a backdrop. A local delegation, background, joined him for the press conference. Bill Kalina photo

Don't expect Pennsylvania to this year address its infrastructure woes.

There's little debate in the state Capitol that Pennsylvania is in dire need of billions in investment. Its roads and bridges are decaying faster than they can be repaired. Post-industrial blight depresses housing values and deters redevelopment in urban centers such as York. And broadband access remains an issue for the state's rural hinterlands.

Gov. Tom Wolf has spent months banging around the state pitching his long-stalled Restore PA plan, a $4.5 billion proposal funded by a new severance tax on natural gas drillers.

Unsurprisingly, the GOP-run Legislature was unmoved by the Democratic governor's beefed-up PR campaign, which recently included stops in York and Hellam Township. In fact, legislative leadership has outright panned Wolf's proposal, in what's become an annual right of passage in Harrisburg.

Both chambers respond by rolling out their own plans to fund infrastructure projects. The House bill would boost tax incentives for private investors. The Senate plan would open up state forests for natural gas drilling.

Either proposal — or a reconciled chimera of the two cobbled together before the June 30 budget deadline — would rightly face Wolf's veto pen.

This, folks, is what's called a stalemate.

More:Strong cash flow smooths Pa. budget work, but not Wolf’s agenda

More:Gov. Wolf is confident he has the votes for gas tax, but Republicans beg to differ

This budget season is shaping up to be the smoothest of Wolf's tenure. Analysts now project an $800 million surplus. And there's a degree of consensus on issues ranging from new college scholarships for members of the National Guard to bolstered support for farming.

But there remains several big-ticket issues still in flux as the budget deadline looms.

For example, legislative Republicans have shown a willingness to consider boosting the state's minimum wage. But they're looking for something significantly less generous than Wolf's call to immediately boost the state minimum to $12 come June 30.

Education spending is a regular point of contention, one that can scuttle otherwise productive budget talks. The surplus alleviates some of the pressures of years past and there is a general agreement that schools need a little more. But, even so, Republicans' are raring for a fight over their pet projects, such as showering private schools in more cash. All the while, the state's teachers' union is clamoring for legislation that would more than double the minimum salary a teacher could earn. 

The budget deadline is only weeks away. Neither Republicans nor their paymasters in the natural gas industry have any appetite for a new severance tax. And the two proposals offered up by legislative Republicans are non-starters.

Meanwhile, other issues are taking priority because they're either politically convenient or more easily negotiated.

Pennsylvania's roads and bridges are in need of investment. Blight continues to plague rust belt cities. Flooding or broadband connectivity are consistent threats to local economies.

Identifying the problem is one thing. Crafting a solution, however, is probably more than Harrisburg can handle.