Wolf, Democrats outline proposal for $1.7B in pandemic funds
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s governor and his Democratic allies in the Legislature on Wednesday laid out a proposal to spend federal pandemic relief money on workers, environmental and climate change programs as well as a one-time property tax subsidy for lower-income homeowners and renters.
The plan was announced less than a week before Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to present his 2022-23 state budget proposal to the Republican-majority General Assembly. Lawmakers would have to approve the spending for the plan to take effect.
“We need to do something right now to address the needs of Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said at a news conference in the Capitol flanked by Democratic lawmakers.
Wolf pointed out that the state still has $2.2 billion in federal money from the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden last March. But, he said, the money is just “sitting around” and not helping people recover from the pandemic when it could do some good.
Republican lawmakers, however, have maintained that keeping the money in reserve is necessary to help balance the state’s budget through the next two and-a-half years.
House Republican leaders issued a statement that said Democratic spending proposals “were developed in a fiscal fantasy land where concern for future fiscal years apparently doesn’t exist.”
Wolf criticized the Republican stance as doing nothing to help people, saying “right now, nothing is the only plan I’ve seen from the other side.”
“We need to get this money out the door so that people who are hurting right now get the relief right now they need,” Wolf said.
The $1.7 billion Democratic proposal’s largest category is $500 million to help families pay for child care, household expenses and classes, training and licenses to obtain greater skills and boost their incomes.
Wolf and the Democrats also want to provide $225 million in small business grants of between $5,000 and $50,000. The money would help pay for operating expenses, technical help, training and advice on how to stabilize and expand. An estimated 11,000 businesses would qualify, and firms owned by women and minorities, as well as rural companies, would get priority.
The property tax relief would provide nearly a half-million lower-income homeowners and renters with an average of almost $500, a one-time addition to the existing property tax rent rebate program.
The state’s health care sector would get $325 million, much of it to help recruit and retain employees of long-term care facilities.
Wolf’s plan also would spend $40 million to expand county-based mental health programs and send $35 million to student loan forgiveness programs for health care workers through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
The Growing Greener program, agricultural conservation and other efforts toward conservation, recreation, preservation and community revitalization would get a $450 million boost.
“Climate change is already hurting Pennsylvania communities, and we cannot afford to delay our work to lessen that damage,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s proposal for spending state tax dollars will be laid out in the governor’s budget speech Tuesday.
Last week, Wolf signed fast-tracked legislation to spend $225 million in federal pandemic relief, mostly for hospitals to give workers retention and recruitment payments.