Former Gov. Ed Rendell weighed in on this week’s budget proposal from Gov. Tom Wolf, praising some elements of his Democratic successor’s plan and raising questions about others.
“He reached out to Republicans and said, ‘Look, we’re in the hole and we need to get out of this hole together. And he described a lot of things Republicans want to do,” said Rendell, referring to Wolf’s focus on spending cuts over expansive tax hikes. “Can he save $2 billion doing that? Not very likely, and certainly not in the first year.”
In his Tuesday budget address, Wolf touted the “largest cuts” in state history – some $2 billion, as Rendell notes – which many in Harrisburg viewed as a way to sidestep Republicans waiting to gut the governor over any talk of broad-based tax increases.
“The devil is in the details, of course,” Rendell explained. “People say it's a ‘kumbaya moment,’ but let's see if the Republicans have the guts to stand with Wolf.”
But Mike Barley, a former campaign manager for Wolf’s Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, said that Wolf’s maneuvering could put some Democrats in a tight spot.
“Rendell is talking about the box this puts Republicans in, but it puts Democrats in a box, too. They’re in a position where they have to support their governor while some of things they were pushing for before are off the table,” he said. “They were pushing for broad-based taxes and government services and now they have to pivot. How are they going to talk to their constituencies about that?”
Both Barley and Rendell agreed that some major revenue proposals in Wolf's new budget outline were probably DOA. Namely, a planned natural gas severance tax and proposed expansions to the state sales tax, which has numerous exemptions for certain types of products.
“The Republicans will never do a severance tax, even though we’re the only state in the union not to have such a levy," said Rendell, who also pushed for shale taxes when he was in office. “A lot of special interests are going to have their arms out on sales tax expansion. If the Legislature has the gumption to stand up to their lobbyists remains to be seen.”
Barley, similarly, predicted that business groups would work aggressively to "defend their interests" on any business or sales tax expansion.
Rendell also pointed a $25-dollar-a-head fee for state trooper coverage in rural areas lacking their own police forces risked provoking a backlash from the Republican-leaning “T” - Central Pennsylvania and the Northern Tier.
Republican leadership has so far taken a wait-and-see stance on much of Wolf’s budget, although State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman has already excoriated Wolf for failing to address the state pension crisis. Others have privately murmured that Wolf, who will run for another term in 2018, deliberately crafted an “election year budget” aimed at staving off the kind of protracted budget stalemates that raised public ire in recent cycles.
“I think any time you talk to a Republican, pension reform is something they’re always going to be thinking about,” said Barley. “It’s a very Republican Legislature, so of course they’re going to lead and they’re going to help pull together a budget. But I think the difference this year is that Wolf and Republican leaders are less far apart than in the last two years.”
Wolf's office took early critiques in stride.
"Some special interests did exactly what every Pennsylvanian has come to expect: immediately tried to turn this process into a political game as soon as it started," wrote spokesperson J.J. Abott, in an email. "Others, however, echoed the governor's conciliatory tone and we hope that, at the end of the day, those voices will prevail over those who want to continue the status quo."