Gov. Tom Wolf to sign $34 billion ‘divided government’ budget
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf prepared Friday to sign a $34 billion compromise budget after lawmakers wrapped up the week with a flurry of votes on hundreds of pages of legislation that in some cases drew angry protests from his fellow Democrats.
Fueled by strong tax collections, the budget boosts aid to public schools and universities, holds the line on taxes and stuffs a substantial sum into reserves.
Both Wolf, a Democrat, and top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature said they were proud of the budget.
However, Wolf saw some of his top priorities blocked by Republicans, and he gave into a Republican demand to end a decades-old cash assistance program for the destitute deemed temporarily unable to work.
Not a single Democratic lawmaker voted for a bill that ends the program called “general assistance,” and debate over it in the Senate turned ugly Wednesday amid bare-knuckle procedural tactics.
“In divided government you have to advocate aggressively, you have to negotiate hard, and you also have to do what’s best for all of the people you serve,” Wolf said in a statement Friday announcing he would sign the budget bills. “You have to do everything you can to promote the most forward-looking agenda you can conceive, and to prevent regressive policies from becoming law.”
The Republican-controlled House gaveled out for the summer Friday after approving the last budget-related bill, a critical education policy measure that had stalled the night before.
A separate measure passed to help counties afford new voting machines that have an auditable paper trail ahead of the 2020 presidential election, although Democratic lawmakers protested some of the bill’s provisions changing election laws. Wolf has not said whether he will sign it.
Wolf’s office otherwise said he would sign the main budget bill and accompanying legislation later Friday.
All told, the 2019-20 spending plan, for the budget year that starts Monday, authorizes new spending of nearly $2 billion, or about 6 percent more than the current fiscal year’s approved spending.
Much of the extra spending covers new discretionary aid for public schools, plus extra amounts to meet rising costs for prisons, debt, pension obligations and health care for the poor.
It funnels $210 million more into K-12 public schools, as well as tens of millions more into pre-K and higher education institutions, and is expected to leave nearly $300 million for the state’s “rainy day” budgetary reserve.
Healthy revenues eased pressure on lawmakers and the governor this year, helping them deliver an on-time budget after protracted battles in Wolf’s first three years in office. Much of it was similar to the $34.1 billion proposal Wolf issued in February.
Still, Republicans rejected a push by Wolf and his Democratic allies to raise the state’s minimum wage, as well as a new fee proposed by the governor on municipalities that rely solely on state troopers for local police services.
For the fifth straight year under Wolf, Republicans again blocked a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling he had sought this year to underwrite infrastructure and development projects.
The Legislature authorized borrowing $90 million to pay for voting machines, to help counties with a tab expected to exceed $100 million. The borrowing provision that emerged at the 11th-hour after weeks of Republicans saying they would not help pay for Wolf’s demand that counties buy new machines.
On Wednesday night, Republicans abruptly bundled the provision into a measure carrying election law changes, including ending the option of straight party ticket voting and relaxing the state’s absentee ballot rules.
Wolf has not said if he will sign it after Democrats protested that the elimination of straight-party ticket voting would diminish the influence of minority voters and lengthen waiting times and lines at the polls in the heavily populated areas they represent.
Determined to end the general assistance program, Republicans packaged it into legislation reauthorizing state subsidies for Philadelphia hospitals. Wolf had not said until Friday whether he would sign it.
Asked that kind of strategy, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said that it is the reality of divided government and that it won’t change as a means to get agreements.
“I won’t discuss the private conversations I had with any of the parties, but the truth is we were trying to reach a compromise as much as possible,” Cutler said.