Pa. Governor's Budget Pushes for Addressing Asbestos in Schools, College Debt Aid

Gov. Tom Wolf also devotes part of budget speech to expressing dismay over a lack of action to curb gun deaths

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What to Know

  • The budget, Gov. Tom Wolf's sixth, would increase spending through the Pennsylvania's main bank account to $36 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal year starting July 1.
  • Wolf is asking state lawmakers to expand a bond-funded redevelopment grant program by $1 billion and make the money available for the cleanup of lead, asbestos and other environmental health hazards in school buildings.
  • The Democrat is calling on lawmakers to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour on July 1, up from the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to create a major new program for college scholarships, require public schools to provide full-day kindergarten and pump $1 billion into cleaning up lead and asbestos in aging school buildings in his budget proposal rolled out Tuesday. However, the Democrat's plans likely face a skeptical Republican-controlled Legislature.

To do it, Wolf's administration is projecting rosy growth in tax collections, diverting casino gambling tax revenue that subsidizes the state's horse-racing industry, raising borrowing limits and overhauling how charter schools are funded.

In his speech to a joint session of the House and Senate, Wolf called his plan a “blueprint for unleashing a new wave of prosperity for our commonwealth” and said it will make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

“It does not ask any of you to join me on any wild-eyed ideological crusade,” Wolf told lawmakers. “It merely asks that you join me in imagining what this Commonwealth can offer to each of its people.”

In his budget speech, Wolf also urged action to curb student debt and gun violence, making child care more affordable and raising the minimum wage.

The budget, Wolf's sixth, would increase spending through the state's main bank account to $36 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal year starting July 1. Including nearly $600 million in supplemental cash for the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for another $2.6 billion in new spending, or 7.5 % more.

Most of the increase would go to rising costs for health care for the poor and long-term care for the elderly and disabled. Public schools and pre-kindergarten programs would get about another $170 million, or 2% more, plus $280 million in savings from changing how charter schools are funded. Meanwhile, the administration wants to require that public schools start providing free, full-time kindergarten.

The plan would hold the line on sales and income taxes, the state's two biggest sources of revenue. However, the administration is projecting an aggressive 4.5% growth in tax collections, including $240 million bump from restructuring the corporate net income tax. The administration also is seeking new fees on municipalities to pay for state police services and on waste hauling to underwrite a hazardous cleanups program.

Many of the governor's items face long odds, since Republican lawmakers have reliably rejected Wolf's most expansive proposals since he took office in 2015. The plan is already facing objections from the horse-racing industry and charter school proponents.

The $200 million college-scholarship program is part of Wolf's initiative to attack student debt and would focus on lower- and middle-class students graduating from one of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities.

Administration officials estimate that at least 25,000 state-system university students would benefit from it, getting the assistance as long as they stay in Pennsylvania after they graduate. To fund it, the administration wants to divert $200 million from slot-machine tax revenue that, since 2006, has subsidized the state's horse racing industry.

“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf told lawmakers.

Another new element Wolf is proposing is expanding a bond-funded redevelopment grant program by $1 billion and making the money available for lead and asbestos cleanups in schools. It is fueled by growing concerns over asbestos and lead poisoning in Scranton and Philadelphia.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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