Gov. Wolf signs no-new-taxes Pa. budget

Pennsylvania Budget
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Wolf signed into law the state’s $32.7 billion budget Friday evening, marking the first time in his four-year tenure that he has approved an on-time spending plan negotiated with the Republican-controlled legislature.

The plan involves no new taxes or fees, and includes funding boosts for public schools as well as colleges and universities. But it does not include some of the governor’s key requests, such as an increase in the minimum wage or a tax on natural gas drillers.

Still, this year’s drama-free negotiations — at least publicly  — were a milestone in the Capitol. There hasn’t been an on-time budget since Wolf took office in 2015. The last time a governor signed a budget this far in advance of the June 30 deadline was in 2001, when Republican Gov. Tom Ridge was in office.

It was also the first time Wolf actually signed a budget, using a black Sharpie to affix his name to it. In the previous three years, which were marked by acrimonious talks over how to plug chronic deficits, the governor allowed the spending plans to lapse into law without his signature.

This year, talks were aided by rosier revenues  and politics. All 203 seats in the House and half the 50 seats in the Senate are up for grabs. Wolf, too, is facing reelection, and has been criticized repeatedly by his Republican opponent, Scott Wagner, for his handling of the state’s finances.

In a statement Friday night, Wolf championed this year’s spending plan as a “bipartisan budget,” and said it “continues to increase opportunities for all Pennsylvanians, and shows the results of our hard work to get our finances under control.”

The main budget bill, as well as its companion code bills, are heavy on education funding and policy changes.

The budget contains $100 million more for public schools, $25 million more for early-childhood education, and $15 million for special education. State-related universities, including Temple and Pittsburgh, will receive a combined boost of nearly $17 million.

A new account has been created to provide an additional $60 million in funding for safety measures in schools and local communities. That money will be doled out in grants through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency over the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The new budget also will set aside an additional $25 million for programs that provide tax credits to businesses that give scholarship money for K-12 students to attend nonpublic schools. The program has been championed by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and many others in the legislature, but has been criticized by some pro-public education groups.

The Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, which advocates for fair and equal education for all children, said in a statement Friday that it was “troubled” by the additional funding for the programs, which it said “lack any meaningful accountability provisions.” 

Also tucked into a budget-related bill was language to further delay the implementation of a controversial measure requiring high school students to pass standardized tests known as the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. That requirement will now be put off until the 2020-21 school year.

Another provision permits school districts to go into a closed-door executive session to discuss security issues which if aired in public would be harmful to public safety. Any decisions arising from such private talks, however, would have to be voted on in public.

In all, the budget increases spending by 1.7 percent, but that is only because legislators moved about $800 million in Medicaid expenses off the main budget books. The money for those expenses is expected to come from one-time cash infusions, including funds from the state’s landmark settlement with tobacco companies.