It's an election year and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is on the ballot. There was no doubt that his annual budget address would reflect that political reality. It certainly did.
The governor's budget address, delivered earlier this week to a joint session of the General Assembly was mercifully short — at less than 20 minutes it was the shortest in memory. It was mild in tone, not even remotely reminiscent of his rant against legislators a couple of years ago.
It was plain vanilla, bland to the point of critics calling it "dull." His biggest applause line came on the heels of his congratulating the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Most important, it didn't contain any of the requests for massive tax hikes that have become Wolf's trademark.
If this had been Wolf's first budget address rather than his last, things might have been a lot different for the past four years.
Although Wolf gave up on his constant quest to raise taxes on every Pennsylvanian this time, he still managed to ask for nearly $1 billion in additional state spending.
If passed, that would ramp up the increase in state spending under Gov. Wolf to nearly $4 billion.
That far outpaces the ability of Pennsylvania's working families to pay for it. It's a rate that exceeds the growth of the economy and far exceeds the limits of the Taxpayer Protection Act, were it to become law.
The biggest question is: "Why ramp up spending at a time when fiscal restraint is called for?" Having just heard all of the discussion about "structural deficits," shouldn't we be looking for ways to economize instead of simply spending more?
The governor's proposed budget also adds to the bonded indebtedness of the commonwealth which is already nearly $13 billion.
He wants to spend more money on public schools, but there is no talk about increased accountability for education spending which is already at record highs and increasing each year.
Sadly, Wolf's proposal also flatlines the EITC (Education Improvement Tax Credit) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. These two items have both saved taxpayers millions of dollars and provided thousands of school children the opportunity to attend better schools.
How the budget is financed is always part of the legislative process that now begins in earnest. Although Wolf isn't seeking big "broad-based" tax increases this time, he's still stuck on trying to double tax the natural gas industry.
It's appropriate that his address immediately followed Groundhog Day. We've heard, over and over, Wolf's attempt to hit the natural gas industry with an additional tax.
His pitch is based on the myth that Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn't tax the extraction of natural gas.
Of course we do, not only with the so-called "impact fee" which has generated nearly $2 billion, but also through one of the nation's highest corporate taxes and other taxes not paid by producers in other states.
All of this raises the question about special taxes applied to a single industry.
The tax proposed by Wolf wouldn't apply to any anything except natural gas (and those who use it in their homes or businesses), an industry that is doing so much for so many, creating thousands of high-paying jobs, and boosting the state's economy in ways unforeseen just a decade ago.
The retort that it's fair because gas is a "natural resource" falls flat in light of the fact that there's no such tax on the extraction of coal, timber, water, sand, stone, or gravel. (That's not intended as a "suggestion!")
One tip of the hat to the Guv on taxes: he wants to decrease Pennsylvania's exorbitantly high Corporate Net Income Tax.
He could be more aggressive, both in the scope of the cut and the timeframe in which he wants it done, but for America's most liberal governor to acknowledge that's our business taxes make us less competitive is a step in the right direction.
The governor's proposal isn't the final budget, it's only a starting point. But it's much closer to the finished product than his previous messages.
Wolf has yet to get a budget done on time. Interestingly, he's never even signed one into law.
This year should be an exception. Wolf's election-year budget proposal allows legislators to negotiate some reductions in spending, dispense the notion of a job-killing additional tax on natural gas, and get things wrapped up before June 30.
Charlie Gerow is a political analyst for Harrisburg, Pa.'s CBS affiliate, appearing weekly on its Sunday morning show, "Face the State," which is syndicated statewide. He serves as the first vice chair on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union. He is the CEO of Quantum Communications, a strategic communications and issue advocacy firm. For more of his reports — Go Here Now.
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