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By Kim JarrettThe Center Square

The budget battle between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature is set to begin Feb. 18 as the House and Senate begin budget hearings.

Wolf unveiled his $36 billion spending plan Feb. 4. Democrats praised the plan for its emphasis on gun control, education and a proposal to raise the minimum wage.

Some Republican lawmakers criticized the plan, saying in a statement the budget address was “filled with flowery language but lacked an actual plan to resolve systemic financial problems Pennsylvania is facing.”

Wolf is asking for $2.6 billion in new spending, but did not include a property or income tax increase in his proposal. He based his numbers in part on a projected 4.5 percent increase in tax collections. He is also asking for a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to fund infrastructure projects and for a $1 increase on municipal waste hauling.

The Battle Begins

Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, took a direct strike this week at Wolf, accusing him and his administration of overspending that has led to cost overruns. The two are asking all of the House’s standing committees to review the state’s executive agencies and make recommendations on how to improve efficiency.

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“Taxpayers should be getting a break during these times of economic prosperity, but instead, this governor continues to ask for more from Pennsylvanians’ wallets,” Saylor said in a statement Tuesday. “Our committee leaders will take thorough looks at all state agencies and expenditures, examining which programs are helping move our Commonwealth forward, and which are only holding us back.”

Republican senators have criticized the $1.5 billion increase in the budget, saying now is the time to be fiscally disciplined.

“The Governor’s budget proposal contains large spending increases over the previous year of 4.5 percent, which is well over the rate of inflation and considerably higher than previously enacted budget spending increases,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne said. “That, coupled with a significant number of supplemental increases by the Governor, creates a risky financial profile for the future of the Commonwealth.”

Legislators will zero in on several key components in budget hearings next week.

Education

Wolf is proposing to take $204 million from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund and establish a college scholarship program. That would “bankrupt” the horseracing industry, Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, said.

“It would mean the end of horseracing in Pennsylvania,” Helm said in a statement. “The simple fact is that the governor’s proposed budget is fiscally irresponsible.”

Several Republican lawmakers say Wolf is proposing a 75 percent cut in school safety programs.

“All parties understand the need for this funding, and all parties should understand its importance to school districts,” Sen. Scott Martin said in a statement. “This issue should not be a point of contention in budget negotiations, nor should it be used as a bargaining chip to win concessions on other budgetary issues.”

The governor is also seeking money to expand kindergarten to full-day. He has not estimated how much that will cost.

Charter Schools

Wolf is proposing a statewide tuition fee for the state’s cyber and charter schools, a plan he says would save local school districts about $133 million.

State Police

Wolf wants local municipalities who do not have a police department to pay a fee for protection by the state police, a move he says would raise about $136 million. Several of the cities and townships affected have said they cannot afford the fee.

Minimum Wage

Wolf wants lawmakers to agree to raise the minimum wage from the federal level of $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour by July 1.

The House and Senate budget hearings will continue through March 5 and will be streamed live online.

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