Gov. Wolf's proposed $32.3 billion budget isn't just a spending plan, it's an admission of defeat in getting the Republican-led legislature to raise income and sales taxes. With the state facing a grim $3 billion deficit through next year, however, the governor is rightly asking for a severance tax on natural gas, a reasonable 6.5 percent.
The budget presented Tuesday doesn't address pension reform and escalating Medicaid costs, which Republican leaders were quick to point out. But Wolf's plan provides a much better starting point for negotiations that avoid the destructive and humiliating stalemates over the past two years that forced the state to borrow money.
Wolf has no choice but to find Republicans who will work with him. Given that reality, he could have consulted with GOP leaders prior to presenting his budget. Getting early leadership support for some ideas might pave the way for their passage later, unless the Republicans insist on being obstructionists.
In his address, Wolf emphasized his willingness to work with Republicans who want to take a responsible approach to budget negotiations. He pointed out that his proposed consolidation of several state agencies was a Republican suggestion. But Wolf did the heavy lifting of figuring out how to do it.
Wolf would save $100 million by merging the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole into a new Department of Criminal Justice, and by consolidating the departments of Health, Aging, Human Services, and Drug and Alcohol into a Department of Health and Human Services.
Another $143 million in savings would come from cutting state jobs. Shutting a prison in Pittsburgh would save $81 million. Wolf would raise $63 million by imposing a $25 per person fee on towns that irresponsibly disbanded their police forces and instead use state troopers, whose costs are borne by all taxpayers. He also wants to cut sales tax exemptions for airline purchases of catered food, commercial storage, and computer services.
If Republicans really want to kick up the state's economy, they can put more money into the pockets of consumers by raising the minimum wage from its disgraceful $7.25 an hour to Wolf's suggested $12 an hour, which would bring in an additional $95 million in revenue.
Wolf's budget increases funding for basic education by $100 million. It provides $10 million for Naloxone, used to revive drug overdose victims. He will continue his push to eliminate the state's structural deficit, the result of spending more money than it raises; and he wants to raise the state's rainy day fund from a pitiful $245,000 to $500 million. During the Rendell administration, the fund was $1.5 billion, but maintaining that level, like other prudent fiscal practices, was abandoned to avoid raising taxes.
Harrisburg also must brace for cuts to health care and other services as President Trump insists on killing the Affordable Care Act.
Wolf's budget should please a legislature that has one of the largest Republican majorities in decades. He has given them plenty to work with, including cuts, consolidations, and no broad-based tax increases. That's what the Republicans keep saying they want. This budget will put to the test whether that's true.