Gov. Wolf’s leap to a parallel universe

Gov. Wolf’s leap to a parallel universe

Oh, how the world has changed.

In keeping, I suppose, with the politics of our time, politics that brought us a president unlike any in U.S. history, now comes a state budget plan unlike any in Pennsylvania history.

Democratic Gov. Wolf, who last year called for $2 billion plus in new state taxes, now calls for $2 billion plus in less state spending.

It’s a cosmic fiscal flip-flop; a leap, if you will, to a parallel universe.

Doesn’t mean it’s bad.

In fact, it reflects reality: revenue reality, legislative political reality and, not insignificantly, Wolf’s reelection reality as he seeks a second term next year.

The mood of the country and, I dare say, a state that went for Donald Trump essentially sees government as largely evil and ineffective.

Wolf’s proposal plays to that. He wants to “reimagine and reinvent” government in ways that appear to expose bureaucracy as being as wasteful with tax dollars as taxpayers believe.

For example, Wolf’s proposal says we can save $767 million through “prioritizing” expenditures and “cost efficiencies,” and save an additional $493 million through “prudent fiscal management.”

Great, let’s do it. But doesn’t that strongly suggest state leaders now have misplaced priorities and employ imprudent management?

In the real world, it does.

Yet first-blush reaction from top Republicans who fiercely fought Wolf over taxes and spending for two years is akin to an embrace.

“It’s a welcome shift,” says Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne. And Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati says, “At least we’re at a better starting point.”

Key words here are “starting point.”

While the Legislature — the most Republican in 60 years — no doubt loves deep cuts, it isn’t as tender toward Wolf’s revenue-raising plans.

Wolf once again wants a severance tax on natural gas from Marcellus shale to bring in $294 million.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman just says no, quickly adding, “You’re taxing job creators.”

Others argue the industry has hit bumps; give it time to right itself, then tax it when it makes more money.

Another area of conflict is Wolf’s call for hiking the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12.

Like implementing a shale tax, upping the wage has been tried for years, and lawmakers in both parties concede doing so remains a challenge.

When I ask Philly’s Vincent Hughes, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, if a wage hike’s a heavy lift, he says, “In Trump World? Yes.”

(I’d note that Trump World is such that in 2015 Trump said he wouldn’t raise the wage and wages are “too high,” but in 2016 he said it should be up to states and “I don’t know how you live on $7.25 an hour.”)

There’s plenty to chew on in Wolf’s $32.3 billion spending plan. He wants no broad-based taxes. He wants more business taxes. He wants to cut the deficit.

He wants $200 million more for basic education, special education, and pre-K. He wants to consolidate several agencies with only modest furloughs. He wants to charge rural municipalities without police departments for state police protection. He wants to cut funds to Penn and reduce other tuition aid and scholarship programs.

But these are only wants.

Two years ago, Wolf wanted to cut property taxes 50 percent, increase the state share of public education to 50 percent, and reduce middle-class taxes 13 percent.

None of that happened. The state’s share of education spending is 36 percent. And, unless I nodded off, property-tax or middle-class-tax cuts aren’t among Wolf’s new wants.

So it goes in a changed world. At a time that odd things – such as La La Land winning awards – just keep happening.

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Published at Wed, 08 Feb 2017 15:16:29 +0000

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