HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his annual budget address on Feb. 6, highlighting an increase in funding for public education in the 2018-19 fiscal year and pushing state legislators of both parties to approve a severance tax.
Recalling his inauguration, Wolf compared his intent upon being sworn in as governor to what he has been able to accomplish during his term.
The component connecting the last three years, he said, is a “political paralysis” that has prevented past governors and legislatures from working together to accomplish common goals.
“When I stood outside this building on that Tuesday afternoon and took the oath of office as Pennsylvania’s governor, I talked about what made our commonwealth a place we are all so proud to be from,” Wolf said. “I believed then, as I believe now, that the people of Pennsylvania have what it takes to restore those values and rebuild our prosperity.”
The state’s rebuilding process included an examination and reorganization of Pennsylvania’s public schools after Wolf took office.
Today, Pennsylvania’s school districts have an 86 percent graduation rate and enroll more than 100,000 children in full-day kindergarten programs.
Pennsylvania is also second in the nation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, according to Wolf.
He said the number of technical education students has increased in the state by 33 percent, and will help to fill the positions that employers have been struggling to fill.
“Rebuilding our schools is the beginning of rebuilding our economy — but it’s just the beginning,” Wolf said.
Wolf tied Pennsylvania’s strides toward improving education to the state’s flourishing business investments, and said strong education programs are what led Amazon to consider establishing a second headquarters in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
“Businesses don’t invest in states that don’t invest in education, infrastructure or job training,” he said.
Throughout the approximately 20-minute address, Wolf tackled subjects ranging from the state’s declining crime rates to the opioid crisis that continues to affect a large portion of the state.
“Harrisburg works better — and Pennsylvania works better — when we work together to make it work for everyone,” Wolf said.
Prior to his conclusion, Wolf stressed the value of Pennsylvania’s abundance of natural gas and the importance of creating a state severance tax. He argued that a severance tax would allow Pennsylvania to have additional revenue to use toward improving roadways and school districts while keeping tax rates low.
A severance tax, which would be paid mostly by the residents of other states to use Pennsylvania’s natural resources, would force other states to become accountable for their usage of natural gas, he said. According to Wolf, severance taxes are utilized in Texas, Alaska, Louisiana and Oklahoma — all of which are known for their roles in the oil and gas industries.
Democrats overwhelmingly supported the address, praising Wolf for his intent to increase spending on education. He plans to fund that section of the budget by improving tax collections as well as taxing on the collection of Marcellus Shale natural gas, according to Pennsylvania Legislative Services.
The party was also pleased by the governor’s focus on decreasing crime rates in the state, but wished Wolf had honed in on issues such as gun violence, minority inclusion efforts and mass incarceration.
“There is very little that he said that is controversial, other than the severance tax,” said Sen. Art Haywood, a Democrat representing parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think he and the legislature have learned how to work together.”
Immediately following the address, Republican legislators gathered for a press conference in the Capitol Building that included numerous critiques of Wolf’s proposal.
Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana County) thanked the governor for his efforts to relieve financial burden from Pennsylvania’s working-class families, but said he is concerned about the repercussions of a proposed increase in state spending.
“There are questionable components that can lead to increases in the future,” Reed said. “We are willing to look outside the box to re-envision what our government should be.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said “the governor has a nice agenda,” but that it is impossible to assume that Wolf and the Republicans will not have any areas in which they disagree.
Corman refuted Wolf’s intent to increase government spending in order to generate state revenue, claiming it is “highly unlikely” that there will be any increase in revenue next year.
Republicans also took issue with the fact that Wolf did not address a number of state entities that are responsible for a considerable amount of the budget, including higher education, according to Corman.
“We’re going to have to find a large number of reductions,” Corman said.
Corman estimated that the finalized budget for next year could be finished by as early as May or June, but not without strife in the capital.
Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh County) compared Pennsylvania’s $1.5 billion deficit of last year to this year’s $40 million surplus and described Wolf as aggressive with what he intends to spend next year.
“The only thing that can put us at risk is overspending,” Browne said. “We have to continue to keep our spending rates at where they’ve been. Based on his proposal, we would be $7 billion higher than we are now.”
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny County) said Republicans once again bear the responsibility of creating a realistic budget proposal.
“I find it interesting that once again, Republicans are the adults in the room,” Turzai said. “Clearly, [Donald] Trump’s agenda is having a positive effect nationwide.”
Turzai mentioned the debate between Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans while creating last year’s budget proposal, and described the situation as unnecessary conflict. He blamed Wolf for not holding himself accountable for the struggle to finalize the budget.
“[That was] inexcusable — we won’t go through the same shenanigans with this budget,” Turzai said.
He emphasized that the focus of next year’s budget should be creating new jobs and an environment where Pennsylvania residents can receive as many opportunities as possible.
“Our citizens deserve no less,” Turzai said.