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In Budget Speech, Wolf Describes Doomsday Scenario

Gov. Tom Wolf giving budget address to full room.
Chris Knight
AP Photo

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf offered up some tough talk for the GOP-controlled state Legislature in his second budget address, scarcely mentioning the details of his proposed $33.3 billion plan.

“Usually this speech is an opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda for the year ahead,” Wolf said. “But I can’t give that speech. Not under these circumstances.”

Wolf’s proposal calls for $2.7 billion in new and higher taxes to close a budget gap and funnel more money into education, human services, and mandated spending.

But the governor didn’t focus on that in his 25-minute speech to the Legislature.

Instead, he described the dire financial position he says the state will be in if his proposals aren’t approved. The state faces a nearly $2 billion deficit, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Wolf, “and it’s ticking away, right now, even as I speak. If it explodes, the people in this chamber, if you allow it to explode, then Pennsylvania will experience a fiscal catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen.”

Wolf described the consequences of austerity: teacher layoffs, human services program cuts, and higher school property taxes. He offered his own budget proposal as a contrast.

The plan would increase funding for K-12 schools and higher education. It would also put more money towards county human services and programs for people with intellectual disabilities. But the administration says most of the new spending is in mandated costs – pensions, health care, human services, and state prisons.

To pay for it, Wolf is proposing a slew of taxes he didn’t get last year. The governor is calling for a new levy on natural gas drillers and a hike in the personal income tax. He would expand the sales tax to apply to movie tickets, basic cable services, and digital downloads. The proposal would take the per-pack cigarette tax from $1.60 to $2.60, and apply a 40 percent tax on other tobacco products and e-cigarettes. The plan would also hike taxes on banks and “promotional plays” at casinos, as well as place a surcharge on insurance premiums.

Wolf encouraged lawmakers during his Tuesday address to help him find alternative ways to close the budget deficit. But ignoring the deficit, the governor said, should not be an option.

“If you ignore that time bomb ticking,” said Wolf, “if you won’t take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania, then find another job.”

The line prompted thunderous applause from Democrats, but it was met with silent raised eyebrows among Republicans.   

“I have to update my resume,” quipped Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe).

GOP leaders denounced the governor’s speech, accusing Wolf of fear-mongering.

“To use this fear as a motive to raise taxes... I resent that, that only tax increases can avert a crisis,” said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson). “By damn, you have to strike a balance around here, and he’s missing the balance.”

For all their dislike of the governor’s tone, Republicans didn’t take on Wolf’s warning about the state’s $2 billion budget deficit. Senate GOP leaders said they’re not sure they agree with that figure, and they’re not saying how they would reduce it. House GOP leaders didn’t say how they would address any spending shortfall, either, though they suggested that if the state has a budget gap, this is not the time to propose additional spending.

“You do not take on a structural deficit and increase spending at the same time,” said the Republican House Appropriations chairman, Rep. Bill Adolph (R-Delaware). “That’s a disaster -- a taxpayer’s disaster.”

Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) muttered rebuttals in the back of the crowd as he watched the House GOP leaders give their response to the governor’s speech. Dozens of rank-and-file Republicans stood behind their caucus leaders wearing stickers that read, “Standing up for taxpayers.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this, quite frankly,” said Frankel. He echoed the governor’s hope that lawmakers could return to a tentative budget deal struck late last year.

That didn’t seem likely to GOP Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman after the governor’s budget address.

“My guess is,” said Corman, “today we are further apart today than we were in June of last year.”

Mary Wilson is the state Capitol reporter for Pennsylvania's public radio stations, including witf in Harrisburg, WHYY in Philadelphia and WESA in Pittsburgh. Mary came to witf after a year being a catch-all staffer for a Maryland politician. Partisanship was a drag, but other things stuck: she has great empathy for those who have spent hours folding sample ballots and building campaign signs. Before that, she was a part-time show host and cub reporter at WFUV-FM in New York City. She covered the closing of the old Yankee stadium and narrated the scene of Harlem on the night of the 2008 presidential election. Mary graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx with majors in history and Italian.