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State budget questions to be answered soon

There is no need for concern over Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to increase spending by roughly $2 billion — to $36.6 billion — in the 2020-21 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The budget plan the governor introduced Tuesday is nothing more than a financial foundation on which the Legislature can start working — a spending wish list that never survives intact, no matter who the governor might be.

State lawmakers conduct weeks of budget-related hearings with cabinet and agency heads — this year beginning on Feb. 18 — to evaluate the needs of the various commonwealth departments and programs, going forward, as well as to judge those entities’ current and past spending.

After gathering sought-after information, legislative leaders sit down for the difficult task of actually allocating money, purportedly in line with available revenue and other acceptable maneuvers, such as money transfers and borrowing.

While many initial ideas survive in some form, dollar amounts and money uses within specific programs or departments usually vary from what the governor strives for initially.

Tuesday was Wolf’s sixth budget address. He is not naive about the budgeting processes, challenges and differences of opinion ahead.

But the fact that the executive and legislative branches have been able to strengthen the commonwealth’s fiscal standing, especially during the past two budget exercises, proves that the two branches acted responsibly in piecing together workable spending plans.

That doesn’t ignore that the state’s current budget is on track to spend about $800 million more than the amount budgeted last June. However, that might not be as mind-boggling as it seems, if monthly fiscal reports over the next five months continue on January’s positive trajectory, when general fund revenue collections nearly erased a big setback on the monthly incoming-revenue front in December.

Taxpayers should pay attention to what the governor and lawmakers say in coming weeks about spending priorities. Listening to that dialogue, taxpayers should keep in mind that, despite the differing opinions, there will not be an income tax increase.

Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, says the new Wolf spending plan represents a “dangerous” increase well beyond what his constituents would consider to be a responsible budget. However, that description is destined to go away once budget talks begin.

Wolf wants to raise the state’s minimum wage hourly rate to $12 from $7.25, a proposal Rep. Joshua Kail, R-Beaver and Washington, says would put 34,000 people out of work. If there is any increase, it won’t be nearly as big as what Wolf is proposing.

Likewise, lawmakers won’t approve Wolf’s long-sought-after severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry, even if the revenue would be targeted for infrastructure projects under his proposed Restore Pennsylvania initiative.

Also unlikely to be approved is a revised Wolf strategy requiring municipalities to share the cost of local police services provided by the state police.

Still, the Pennsylvania State Education Association praises the Wolf budget for making public education a top priority, and the governor’s commitment to trying to curb gun violence is winning praise in some quarters.

But, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman has rightly criticized the budget proposal for allegedly containing more than half-a-billion dollars of tax increases on employers.

Fiscal discipline, caution and compromise will be indispensable as Wolf’s proposal is molded into a workable financial plan not warranting taxpayer anger, fear or distrust. Whether that will be accomplished by the June 30 budget-preparation deadline, though, cannot yet be predicted.

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