Governor Tom Wolf outlined his spending priorities in his 2019-20 state budget address to the General Assembly last week. With a Republican-led General Assembly, he will find it difficult to find support.
Wolf did not propose any increases in the sales or personal income taxes. His wish list does continue to include a tax on natural gas drilling, which he has not been able to convince Republican lawmakers to implement. This time, he proposed using the revenue from the tax for a $4.5 billion program to finance projects such as controlling floodwaters and fighting blight.
His proposals increase spending by 2.79 percent, which he said addresses critical needs while remaining fiscally responsible to taxpayers. The budget would use transfers from the Rainy Day Fund to fund the spending.
Fees for State Police Use
The governor’s plan calls for residents in towns that rely on state police and do not have a local police force to pay a fee for those services. The fee amount would be based on community size. According to Wolf, 67 percent of Pennsylvania’s communities rely on the state police.
Minimum Wage Increase
The governor proposed raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by July 1, and he would like to see it increase to $15 an hour by 2025. Business groups are opposed to an increase, saying it will force them to lay off workers. Neighboring states have already increased their minimum wage above the federal $7.25 per hour.
A Better Trained Workforce
Wolf announced a plan to increase training programs for workers and to help connect workers with available jobs. The state is launching the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center. It would hold regular meetings with state cabinet officials where needs would be assessed to help companies find the workers they are seeking. It would also include the Employer Fund, a public-private partnership to help businesses address the gap in skills need for certain jobs and a opportunity to share best practices.
The governor also proposed an additional $10 million for the PASmart initiative to help fill more advanced manufacturing jobs.
The state Department of Environmental Protection would see state funding cut by $20.7 million under the governor’s budget proposal. The money would be made up through new fees and a projected $28.2 million increase in federal funding. A boost in federal funding is uncertain, based on past performance.
The budget does include increased funding for abandoned mine reclamation, energy development, recycling grants and surface water pollution programs. The safe drinking water program, which was cited for failing to protect the basic right all Pennsylvanians are entitled to, does not receive an increase but the restricted program fund is projected to increase thanks to additional fees that water utilities will likely pass on to ratepayers.
Public schools would benefit under the governor’s budget. He would increase the basic education budget, which is a key source of money for public schools, by more than $200 million. Special education would receive an additional $50 million.
Full-Day Kindergarten would be studied further as some school districts have scaled back full-day kindergarten programs. Governor Wolf would like to study providing free, universal all-day kindergartens to students starting at age 5.
He also proposed lowering the compulsory school attendance age to 6, which would put Pennsylvania in line with other states. While, he would raise the minimum dropout age to 18 to encourage more kids to finish high school.
The governor proposed boosting teachers starting salary to $45,000 annually to help school districts attract and retain good teachers. The money for increase would come from the budget, so that school districts would not incur the additional costs.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would receive of 1.5 percent increase. The $7 million increase would benefit the 14 universities in the system, including Shippensburg, Millersville and West Chester. State-related schools, such as Penn State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University would receive flat funding. However, the governor did propose more money for grants to pay for college.
Lawmakers will hold hearings to review the governor’s proposed spending program in hearings over the next few months. Both the state Senate and House of Representatives have to approve the plan, which would then go to Governor Wolf for his signature. It’s likely they will propose many changes to the plan. The budget is supposed to be approved by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.