Capitol Notebook

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf calls for more money for public school — and gun control

by Cynthia Fernandez and Angela Couloumbis |

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his 2020-21 budget address in the state House of Representatives as Speaker Mike Turzai, left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, look on, on Feb. 4, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa
Joe Hermitt / PennLive / The Patriot-News

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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday proposed a $36 billion dollar budget with no major tax increases that would boost funding for public education, expand full-day kindergarten to all students, borrow money to address environmental hazards in schools, and make sweeping changes to how charter schools are funded.

In his annual address before a joint session of the General Assembly, the Democratic governor also departed from the boundaries of a traditional budget speech to make a strong plea for stricter gun laws in a state with a long history of taking a hands-off approach to the issue.

Wolf called for universal background checks, stronger reporting requirements for lost and stolen firearms, and a “red flag” law that would give judges the ability to temporarily seize firearms from people considered a threat to themselves or others.

“The steps I’m proposing are supported by the evidence and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said, adding: “To let another session go by without action would be a failure of imagination that will cost lives.”

Though the governor’s sixth proposed budget reflected his long held priorities of championing public education, it also recognized the reality of negotiating with Republican lawmakers who control the state legislature, and who in years past have rejected several of the administration’s big-ticket revenue proposals.

Wolf’s plan, for instance, would not hike either the state’s sales or income taxes — the two largest sources of revenue — but instead would seek to raise new dollars through targeted fees on municipalities to fund, among other items, the State Police budget.

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The governor also renewed his call to gradually raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, another proposal that has been met with resistance by some Republican lawmakers.

Republicans who control both legislative chambers emerged from Wolf’s speech with a list of complaints about the proposal, which calls for increasing spending by almost 6% over this fiscal year’s $34 billion spending plan. (That does not include an additional $600 million the governor is seeking to cover cost overruns in this year’s budget.)

GOP lawmakers took aim at Wolf’s proposed increase in spending, saying the administration wants to spend more than it can bring in. Wolf’s budget relies heavily on a projection that revenue will grow 4.5%, or $1.6 billion, in the next fiscal year. Republicans also attacked the amount of money the governor is seeking to borrow to fund some of his signature proposals.

“It’s easy to put things on a credit card and then ask other people in the future to pay for it,” said State Rep. Stan Saylor (R., York), who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. “That is not the solution for Pennsylvania.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) called Wolf’s budget address “the red meat speech,” meant to please the governor’s constituency but ultimately unrealistic.

“We will get to a fiscally responsible budget that does not ask the taxpayers to invest more in state government,” Corman said.

But this is an election year — a time when elected officials try to avoid any drawn-out conflict or controversy — and there could be pressure to wrap up the budget well before the July 1 deadline.

Here are some highlights from Wolf’s budget:

Education

-Public schools would receive an additional $100 million, and the governor is proposing an extra $25 million for special education funding.

-Wolf would boost funding for early childhood education by $30 million: $25 million for Pre-K Counts and $5 million for the Head Start Supplemental program.

-The governor would expand free, full-time kindergarten to every Pennsylvania student, and pay for it through a separate reform plan for charter schools.

-Wolf is again proposing to raise the minimum salary for public school teachers to $45,000 per year, from $18,500 per year.

-Under an expanded grant program, $1 billion in state funding, typically set aside for capital projects would be available to remediate lead- and asbestos-tainted schools, an issue that has been particularly acute in Philadelphia.

Higher education

-The governor wants to siphon $204 million from the state’s Race Horse Development Trust Fund to provide financial assistance to full-time students in Pennsylvania’s state colleges and universities.

-State-run universities would receive almost $13 million to redesign technology infrastructure.

-Funding to state-related universities including Penn State and Temple University would remain unchanged.

Charter school reform

The governor is proposing changes to charter school laws that he said will save school districts, which pay for charters but do not run them, about $280 million every year. Among the proposed reforms:

-The administration would apply a tiered special education funding formula to charter schools.

-Wolf would establish a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools, which currently receive between $7,700 and $21,400 per student per year. The new rate would be $9,500 per student every year.

Minimum wage

Wolf is asking the legislature to approve raising the state’s minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $12 beginning this July. That rate would increase every year by 50 cents until it reaches $15 per hour in July2026. The Senate late last year approved a plan to gradually hike the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour, but the House has not yet taken up the proposal.

State police fee

Wolf is resurrecting a new version of a proposal he championed in recent years to impose a fee for State Police coverage on municipalities that don’t have their own police forces. This year, the governor is seeking a fee on all municipalities based on the level of coverage. It would factor in a town’s population and income.

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