Nobody was thinking about the state’s new budget due in June when Gov. Wolf took to the podium Tuesday in the grand, ornate hall of the state House.
That includes, in my view, Wolf.
I’m betting his first thought was: “See those two sitting behind me [Speaker Mike Turzai; Lt. Gov. Mike Stack]? One’s running to replace me. The other wants to be my running mate again. I wish them both the worst.”
And why no interest in a plan to hike state spending $1 billion to $33 billion?
Because the sole thing on state pols’ minds is the gerrymandering fight (and possible constitutional clash) unfolding in the legislature and the courts.
That and, unsurprisingly, the Eagles.
So, as Wolf offered arguably the dullest and possibly shortest (19-minute) budget address in modern state history, I’m thinking the Guv was thinking differently than he was speaking.
Yes, he began by donning an Eagles cap, drawing his only sustained applause and standing ovation. Because what Pennsylvania pol isn’t glomming onto the championship spirit?
Then he rapid-read through a speech, absent any hint of measured oratory, lift, or inspiration. It essentially said, “I’m up for reelection, so are you, let’s not do what we usually do.”
In other words, let’s skip our normal protracted partisan punching matches resulting in phony, unbalanced finances that never get done on time.
Oh, what a difference an election year makes.
For example, unlike in past budget addresses, gone were calls for broad-based (income or sales) tax hikes. And, miracle of miracles, past dire warnings of economic collapse without new taxes, and a past admonition (2016 speech) that lawmakers get their act together or “find another job” also left the building.
Instead, we got stuff such as: “We’ve been able to get a lot done for the people of Pennsylvania.”
Naturally, there was a bit of reelection campaigning. He spoke of increased school funding, some pension reform, medical marijuana, some liquor reform, and lots of effort in the opioid fight.
And to press the point (re: 2018), “I have done things on my own”: Expanded Medicaid, streamlined government, and, lest yinz forget, banned gifts to anyone in the administration, refused to take a salary or pension, “And I paid for my own health insurance.”
Probably was wishing we had early voting.
And substance? Very little. Mostly broad strokes. Wants more for education. A new program called PA Smart (because every new state program must be called PA-something) to “consolidate our workforce development efforts.”
And another call, or howl in the wind, for a severance tax on natural gas, something he’s called/howled for since he first was a candidate in 2014.
The tax he wants would bring an estimated $248 million. Coincidentally, new education funding he wants costs $225 million.
He said, “I’m not just asking you, but challenging you, to do the right thing and pass a severance tax this year.”
He likely was thinking, “I know this has no legs since you’re in the pocket of industry, but it polls well, my base loves it, and I can’t give up on everything.”
There are other measures in the budget proposal not popular with the GOP legislature. So Wolf never mentioned them.
He again wants an increased minimum wage ($7.25 to $12). He again wants a $25 per capita tax (OK, fee) for State Police protection in municipalities without police forces.
Didn’t fly before. Hard to see how either flies now.
The thing is, the speech was so bland and nonconfrontational that it worked. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded politely.
Nobody yelled, “You lie!” In fact, Senate GOP Majority Leader Jake Corman seemed disappointed. He said, “I was practicing my Nancy Pelosi face all week.”
Speaker and Guv-candidate Turzai predictably pooh-pooed the severance tax: “We are not interested in job-crushing taxes.”
And Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), also running for governor on a no-taxes, less-spending platform, said: “The problem is the governor doesn’t want to manage. He just wants more spending.”
Which probably makes Wolf think, “Well, that’s just garbage talk.”