Minimum Wage, Marijuana And Pandemic Recovery Among PA Governor’s Not-So-New Priorities

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — Providing more state funding for struggling businesses and raising the minimum wage are among the agenda items Gov. Tom Wolf will call for in his upcoming budget address.

Wolf has championed many of the dozen or so ideas he outlined since he became governor in 2015. But he said several — like raising the state’s base wage to $12 an hour this year and providing more money for workforce development training — are more urgent because of the economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Businesses small and large that are trying to get by by keeping compensation for their workers low simply is not good business,” Wolf said. “They repay your unwillingness to pay them fairly with a work product that doesn’t make your company very productive or profitable.”

Wolf’s plan is to get lawmakers to approve a $12 an hour minimum wage this year, then steadily increase that amount by 50 cents each year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2027.

It’s unclear whether that plan would keep up with the cost of living. One measure of that, the Consumer Price Index, has increased anywhere between 1.6 to 3 percent annually in the last 20 years. Neighboring New Jersey enacted a plan to pay workers $15 an hour by 2024. Parts of New York state are already paying workers $12.50 an hour.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf answers questions from the press. As the General Assembly convenes for a new legislative session, Governor Tom Wolf today outlined his agenda, in which he continues to prioritize ensuring that Pennsylvania businesses and workers have a path toward recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, building on bipartisan progress by removing barriers to help everyday Pennsylvanians succeed, and demanding accountability through government reform. Harrisburg, PA – January 28, 2021 Commonwealth Media Services / via Governor Tom Wolf Flickr

As for how to repair the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Wolf wants the state to come up with a multi-billion dollar plan to invest in workforce training, aimed at re-employing those who lost their jobs during the pandemic while knocking down barriers to employment.

“To get Pennsylvania back on track from the disruptions that this pandemic is causing, we need to make major targeted investments to strengthen our economy,” Wolf said.

To pay for it, the governor is zeroing in on yet another call to tax the production of natural gas, known as a severance tax. He and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman continue to advocate for legalizing recreational marijuana, promising the state could earn several hundred million more tax dollars.

“I think [with all of that] we will be able to balance the budget and actually address these needs that I’m talking about,” Wolf said of those revenue sources.

Here are some of the governor’s other ideas, which he said he plans to elaborate on during his annual budget address next week:

  • Giving $145 million of extra money from the state’s Workers Compensation Security Fund to prop up businesses. The state Senate this week approved a more than $900 million coronavirus relief package that includes an appropriation of that money. Wolf has not lent his support for that bill just yet, explaining he wants to wait and see how the House will amend it, if at all.
  • Using a state redevelopment fund to both remove hazardous building materials from schools and expand broadband internet infrastructure in schools that need it.
  • A host of legislative branch accountability ideas, including banning lobbyists from working on political campaigns. Wolf has long made changes like this a cornerstone of his policy proposals.

The governor’s budget address won’t feature the usual pomp and circumstance. Wolf said in order to avoid cramming state lawmakers in for the traditional joint session, he’ll be recording his budget message and will distribute it to the public early next week.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff called Wolf’s agenda list “disappointing” in a statement. He noted COVID-19 vaccine distribution should be the governor’s only priority.

“The governor and his administration should have no other top priority than getting Pennsylvanians vaccinated,” Benninghoff said. “Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of the country in terms of vaccine deployment efficiency, and the confusing and short-sighted guidance from the administration has caused significant public angst.”

House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman pointed to a number of ideas Republican lawmakers have come up with to speed the process along, like getting the National Guard involved.

Wolf is blaming several things for the slow rollout — including supply shortages from the federal government and the distribution authorization process. Though he was scant on details, Wolf said the Department of Health and others are “working on things” for improving shot administration every day.

“These are exactly the questions that we’re asking all the time: is there a better way to do this? The goal being to get as many shots into people’s arms as we possibly can,” the governor said.