In a confluence of events unique to Penn’s Wood’s the nation’s most famous groundhog emerges from his winter slumber in Punxsutawney to forecast the weather while along the banks of the Susquehanna the Governor of Pennsylvania appears before the legislature to offer his version of the state budget.
Both events are dubious exercises in prognostication.
Following the governor’s re-election last November the guessing game in Harrisburg was which Tom Wolf would emerge from his budget burrow: the Tom Wolf who early in his first term called for massive tax hikes, or the more fiscally restrained Tom Wolf of last year.
Recent weeks have given us the answer: it is now clear Tom Wolf will attempt to make Pennsylvania the poster child for Democratic socialism. Socialists are ascendant in the Democrat Party nationwide, including Wolf’s new Lieutenant Governor who is a leading light in that movement. As a result Wolf feels emboldened to make a run at enacting the far Left agenda he was denied in his first term.
As in the film Groundhog Day, the governor’s efforts to enact a so-called severance tax on natural gas produced in Pennsylvania, has returned to play out again. Wolf has now been around Harrisburg long enough to learn how the game is played, so this time he has added a twist: kick the tax revenue to projects in select legislative districts to earn the votes of enough lawmakers to pass the tax.
There is an old saying under the Capitol Dome that “it takes a billion to pass a billion,” meaning you essentially need to bribe enough legislators with favored projects to gain the votes needed to pass the tax hike. Wolf is proposing to borrow $4.5 billion to fund projects “outside the scope” (not currently funded) of the current budget. Most of that currently theoretical money would be spent on infrastructure projects.
Infrastructure, meaning primarily roads and bridges, appears to be a black hole for tax dollars. Just a few years ago then-Governor Tom Corbett pushed through what was in effect a 30-cent-per-gallon increase in state gasoline taxes to fund infrastructure improvements. Five years later, with revenue from that tax hike still rolling in, Wolf wants even more feed for the PennDOT beast.
Raising taxes is not the only component of Wolf’s attempt to transform the Keystone state into the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania. Lt. Governor John Fetterman is going on a so-called “listening tour” as a prelude to making a push for legalizing recreational marijuana. During last year’s campaign Wolf claimed the state was not “ready” for legalization of that gateway drug, but the lure of revenue gained from taxing legal pot appears to have changed his mind.
The governor also wants to raise the state’s minimum wage. In the Left’s playbook this is the first step toward fulfilling their ultimate vision of a guaranteed annual income and a government run single payer health care system. This despite the fact studies show minimum wage hikes have the ultimate effect of reducing the number of entry level jobs thus hurting workers at the lowest end of the wage scale.
Standing in the way of these economically destructive proposals is the Republican-controlled General Assembly. While the governor has an infusion of political capital in the wake of his re-election, he faces a more conservative Republican majority than he did during his first term. GOP moderates, mostly in the Philadelphia suburbs, went down to defeat last November. That put conservatives within the Republican caucuses in the two chambers in a significantly stronger position.
The Achilles Heel for Republicans remains the state Senate, where leadership has a track record of caving into the demands of Democratic governors. Across the rotunda in the House, however, lawmakers have been more willing to stand their ground.
Legislative Republicans are in for a battle because in the days leading up to his budget address Governor Tom Wolf has made it clear he plans to live up to his reputation as “the most liberal governor in America.” As 2020 approaches Pennsylvania not only will be a battleground state in the presidential election, it will be ground zero is the fight between pro-growth capitalism and Democratic socialism.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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