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Schools, farms and voting machines in Wolf’s budget sights

February 5, 2019
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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars more for schools in his budget proposal released Tuesday, as well as a sprinkling of money for new voting machines and programs to improve worker training and the agricultural sector.

The Democrat is also seeking new tuition aid for community college students who remain in Pennsylvania.

In his budget address to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature, Wolf said the most significant element of the $34.1 billion budget plan, his first since winning a second term, is its efforts to help Pennsylvanians compete in a changing economy by bolstering skills and education.

He called it “a plan to create a new generation of prosperity” by building the nation’s strongest workforce.

“Our challenge demands an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Wolf told lawmakers in the 28-minute address. “And this budget proposal itself asks Pennsylvanians to come together — business leaders, educators, students, workers — to address the challenge of renewing our prosperity for another generation.”

Including nearly $500 million in supplemental cash for the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for another $1.9 billion in new spending, or nearly 6 percent more.

The proposal would not increase the state’s taxes on income and sales. But Wolf last week laid out a parallel plan to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to finance borrowing for a wide range of projects, from economic development to environmental cleanups.

Wolf’s first term was marked by long, drawn-out budget fights with Republican lawmakers. The new proposal is modest in comparison to his earliest plans, which carried multibillion-dollar tax increases, and appears to reflect Wolf’s shift in strategy to the realities of negotiating with big Republican majorities.

Top Republicans reacted relatively warmly to Wolf’s proposal, applauding its lack of a tax increase and its focus on workforce development.

However, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, warned that tax collections aren’t keeping up with spending growth, even during a strong economy, and suggested that spending must be reined in.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said fellow Democrats were already grumbling that Wolf is not seeking more money for public schools.

The extra spending in Wolf’s plan would largely go toward public schools, prisons, pension obligations and health care for the poor. The administration said the plan carries a half-billion dollars in new initiatives.

To help fund it, Wolf’s administration is counting on tax collections to rise by a solid 3 percent, plus hundreds of millions of dollars from surplus money already appropriated, higher assessments on Medicaid providers and a fee on municipalities that rely only on state troopers to provide police coverage.

Pennsylvania’s tax collections are perhaps in their best shape since the recession a decade ago. But the state is facing challenges, including rising borrowing costs, a ballooning retirement-age population and a static working-age population.

Most of the new money in Wolf’s budget would go to public schools, including $200 million for general operations and instruction. About $13 million of that would finance a boost in the state’s decades-old minimum wage for teachers from $18,500 to $45,000, a provision officials said would mostly benefit rural school districts.

Schools also would get another $45 million for school safety, a higher priority after last February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, while the state would borrow more money for school construction projects.

To try to reverse the loss of younger people moving to other states, Wolf is seeking $8 million to give community college students who remain in Pennsylvania a $2,500 grant to offset tuition or pay down student debt. To enhance skills training, Wolf is seeking $12 million in grants for employers to train workers and $10 million more to encourage apprenticeships.

Replacing voting machines ahead of 2020′s presidential election has been a priority for Wolf, and he is proposing $15 million a year for five years — $75 million total — to help counties pay for machines that leave a voter-marked paper trail, machines viewed as more secure and auditable.

The state’s large agricultural sector also gets attention from Wolf’s budget plan in an effort to boost its long-term prospects. That includes millions of dollars to aid business development, increase processing capacity, draw more workers and market organic products.

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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)