By Mark S. Singel
First, the budget:
The budget battle began in Harrisburg amid a winter storm and a pandemic that has already affected the presentation. Instead of a joint session with the governor live and in person, this year’s speech was virtual. This means that the governor did not have the benefit of real-time legislative reaction. He didn’t have to wait long. The GOP reacted quickly to most of his proposals: They didn’t like them.
The budget proposal seeks to boost state spending by about $4.5 billion with a corresponding increase in the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.49%. The governor wants to shift the tax burden so that families of four making up to $80,000 would see no increase at all. Instead, the top income earners would pay more. The governor points out that this adjustment brings fairness to the system. Republicans don’t seem to be buying it.
Similarly, the governor is calling again for a severance tax on natural gas drillers to pull the state’s economy out of the pandemic. It is true that a modest extraction tax, coupled with existing impact fees would still not impose an undue burden on the industry while generating $500 million for the state. GOP leaders remain opposed to it.
The other parts of Wolf’s plan will also face an uphill battle. Legalizing recreational marijuana is a money maker for the state and studies show that the public is on board. The majority of Republicans in Harrisburg are not. Minimum wage increases – first to $12 per hour then to $15 per hour in the next few years – is also already under fire.
The other “big ticket” item is workforce development. When it comes to jobs, there is always some bipartisan support. The governor is proposing a number of economic initiatives and training programs for those jobs. Of all of the governor’s plans, this is one area that may see some success.
As if he didn’t have enough trouble this budget season, the governor finds himself taking on water as a result of a fiasco in the Department of State.
The department failed to follow the law and advertise a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would open a two-year window for survivors of child sexual abuse to have their day in court – despite timing out of the current statute of limitations. Secretary Kathy Boockvar has taken responsibility for the error and has already resigned. Although the controversy had absolutely nothing to do with the recent presidential election, it has allowed GOP partisans to stir up charges of incompetence that hearken back to the baseless charges of fraud and irregularities that were leveled against her last November.
There is no denying, though, that failing to fulfill this basic administrative function is nothing short of gross negligence. Worse, it means that justice for thousands of victims of sexual abuse may have been pushed back yet another two years. It also means that the public remains at risk from predators who have more time to seek new victims. The Department of State says it has instituted new controls to make sure that such errors don’t recur, but it now falls to the governor and the legislature to right the wrong.
There seems to be a bipartisan, bicameral consensus building that the two-year window can be enacted immediately – without attaching a Constitutional referendum requirement to it. This “statutory” window could bring justice to survivors as soon as the House and Senate agree to move it. Under the circumstances, it is inconceivable that any politician would ask survivors to wait two more years.
There is some positive news coming from the new administration in Washington. This week saw some glimmers of bipartisanship as leaders met with President Biden to hammer out a COVID relief plan. Both sides have similar ideas about vaccine distribution and enhanced testing. They differ on who should receive cash assistance. It comes down to numbers. Biden and the Democrats want $1.9 Trillion; McConnell and the Republicans want $618 Billion.
While the Senate has adopted procedures to move directly to a party line vote, it is still possible that a bipartisan compromise is within reach. This is what happens when leaders start talking to each other and stop the shouting.
And one more ray of hope: the Biden administration has begun to identify and reunite families who were separated at the U.S. Mexico border. After years apart, children will soon be back with their mothers and America will no longer be in the business of inflicting pain on families whose only crime was to seek a better life for their children.
Mark S. Singel is a former Democratic Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. He and Republican Charlie Gerow can be seen at 8:30 a.m. each Sunday on CBS21′s “Face the State.”