Watch Gov. Tom Wolf’s second budget address of his second term, laying out priorities for the 2020-21 fiscal year and calling for action on gun laws. York Daily Record
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf devoted a section of his annual state budget speech on Tuesday to express dismay over a lack of action to curb gun deaths, exhorting lawmakers to make this “the year we choose to stop being cynical about the politics of gun violence.”
It was unusual for a governor to devote a lengthy section of the address to a single policy issue, and his audience was a Legislature that has shown little appetite for policies the second-term Democrat supports.
Those proposals, Wolf said, include universal background checks on gun sales, mandatory reporting for lost or stolen guns, red flag laws to take guns from those at risk of harming someone and better counseling services for troubled schoolchildren.
“Now I know there’s no law that can eliminate every act of gun violence. But the steps I’m proposing are supported by the evidence — and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians,” Wolf told a joint session of the Legislature. “We can pass them tomorrow, and, by doing so, we could make our commonwealth safer.”
The political divisions and strong feelings that characterize the gun issue across the country are mirrored at the state Capitol, where gun safety and regulation proponents hold regular rallies and the yearly “Right to Keep and Bear Arms Rally” always draws attendees by the busload.
Advocates seeking ways to reduce gun violence argue there is considerable public support for many of their legislative proposals, and widespread support for some of them, while gun-rights activists emphasize the Second Amendment and similar language in the state constitution.
House Republican spokesman Mike Straub said his caucus plans to focus on tougher criminal penalties for criminals convicted of gun crimes.
“Working on gun issues must begin with making sure those who should not have firearms in the first place are held accountable,” Straub said.
About 1,600 people die of gunshot wounds in Pennsylvania every year. In 2018, a gunman killed 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, and in 2006 a gunman barricaded himself inside an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, killing five girls and wounding three.
Lawmakers and Wolf last year set aside $3.2 million for private schools through the Department of Education’s safe schools grant program. The state also has a $60 million public school security grant program established after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a program Wolf’s budget proposes to cut by 75 percent.
Two days after a gunman shot six Philadelphia police officers in August, Wolf established a group within state government to address gun violence.
Wolf’s budget proposal seeks $6 million in new money to prevent gun violence through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. He also wants another $4 million for a Philadelphia-based gun violence task force.
“We have gotten used to seeing bulletproof backpacks advertised during back-to-school sales,” Wolf said in the prepared remarks, referring to school lockdown drills, and “that little worry” when people go shopping, watch sports events and attend religious services.
“And, unfortunately, we have also gotten used to hearing politicians offer their thoughts and prayers and little else. It’s part of the ritual now, right alongside the somber press conferences where law enforcement officials detail the carnage and the tearful testimonies from friends and family grieving over their lost loved ones,” Wolf said.
The gun issue does not divide cleanly along party lines — a few of the more conservative Democrats always show up at the annual Right to Bear Arms Rally — but it is the strong Republican majorities in both legislative chambers that has proven an impermeable bulwark against the type of changes Wolf wants.
A rare exception to the general stalemate over gun legislation occurred a few weeks before the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in October 2018, when Wolf signed legislation requiring those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence or subject to protective orders to give up their guns within 24 hours.
Gov. Tom Wolf budget proposal
Highlights of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s spending plan for the 2020-21 budget year that starts July 1:
THE BIG PICTURE
— Increases spending through the state’s main bank account to $36.1 billion. Including nearly $600 million for the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for another $2.6 billion in new spending, or 7.6% of this year’s enacted budget of $34 billion.
— Projects a 4.5% increase in tax collections to $37.3 billion, before refunds. Does not increase tax rates on sales or income, the state’s two biggest sources of revenue.
— Asks lawmakers to expand a bond-funded redevelopment grant program by $1 billion and make the money available for the cleanup of lead, asbestos and other environmental health hazards in school buildings.
— Calls for lawmakers to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour on July 1, up from the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
TAXES AND FEES
— CORPORATE INCOME TAXES: Restructures how the state would calculate corporate profits to adopt “combined reporting” and reduces the current 9.99% tax rate by annual steps to 5.99% in 2025. The change is estimated to produce an additional $240 million in revenue in 2020-21.
— STATE POLICE FEE: To help fund the state police budget, imposes a fee on each municipality that would be driven by incidents and coverage area, and weighted by population, income and whether a municipality has its own full-time or part-time police force. The administration estimates the fee would produce $136 million.
— MUNICIPAL WASTE: Imposes an increase of $1 per ton on municipal waste hauling to generate $22.6 million for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, which is projected to be out of money at the end of 2020.
— GAS DRILLING: Seeks approval of a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to underwrite a $4.5 billion “Restore Pennsylvania” infrastructure program. Using estimates of 2019 production and a price of below $3, the tax would yield more than $600 million in a year.
— Delays a $377 million payment to providers for long-term programs for the elderly.
— Taps $275 million in surplus cash already appropriated, but left unspent in state accounts.
SPENDING BY CATEGORY
— HUMAN SERVICES: Grows $1.2 billion, or 9%, to $14.4 billion.
— PRE-K and K-12 EDUCATION: Grows $170 million, or 2%, to $9.2 billion.
— HIGHER EDUCATION: Grows $58 million, or 3%, to $1.8 billion.
— CORRECTIONS AND PAROLE: Shrinks $73 million, or 3%, to $2.6 billion.
— PENSIONS: Grows about $150 million, or 4%, to $3.7 billion.
— STATE POLICE: Grows $45 million, or 4%, to $1.4 billion.
— DEBT: Grows $6 million, or 0.5%, to $1.15 billion.
— Increases aid for general public school operations and instruction by $100 million for basic instruction and operations, an increase of 1.5%, to $6.9 billion.
— Calls for every school district to provide free, full-day kindergarten. The administration did not estimate how much such a move would cost.
— Diverts more than $200 million in revenues from a tax on slot-machine gambling that subsidizes the state’s horse racing industry to fund scholarships for students at a State System of Higher Education university if they remain in Pennsylvania for as long as they receive the benefit.
— Establishes a statewide cyber-charter school tuition rate that would save $133 million a year for school districts.
— Changes special education reimbursements for charter schools to save $147 million a year for school districts.
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