With last year’s budget impasse still fresh in everyone’s minds, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said this year’s upcoming budget talks are expected to be more constructive.
“I think people really, having gone through an impasse, it’s uncomfortable,” Wolf said in a conference call Wednesday afternoon, exclusive to reporters from Lehigh Valley Business and the Central Penn Business Journal. “I don’t think they want to go through that again. People really want to get things done.”
Among those things they want to get done is tackling the mounting public sector pension crisis, which has a massive effect on the business community.
The state’s public pensions represent a $50 billion to $63 billion unfunded liability, and the state government has no agreement on pension reform.
For years, state, federal and local officials have addressed concerns that a final spending plan should target the commonwealth’s core cost drivers – namely the growing pension crisis. Others have said mandated pension obligations, which are increasing each year for both the state and school districts, continue to drive more tax dollars from the classroom and other important state programs.
“What we need to do now is pay the bill,” Wolf said. “I believe this is something that’s getting the attention it deserves. I certainly compromised on the budget I presented back in March. I compromised on pension reform. I’m not sure how you debate basic mathematics in a budget.”
Wolf said he was willing to sign either pension reform plan but neither one made it to his desk because he didn’t get the votes he needed. Pension reform was part of last year’s budget negotiations and included in a Senate proposal backed by the governor, which failed to move forward.
When the state does not fulfill its obligation to funding education, it leaves those poorer public school districts with no choice but to try to fix that by cutting extracurricular activities and, often, basic necessities, Wolf said. Class sizes get too large, there are fewer teachers and the fiscal disparities between school districts become more apparent, he said.
“We need to figure out how to raise our funds in a fair way,” Wolf said. “I absolutely agree we need to invest more in education. I came in last year and proposed historic increases in education.”
Wolf said he plans to do that again this year, through a funding formula that would adequately fund schools more fairly.
Wolf, a Democrat, weighed in on the upcoming presidential election, noting his support for Democrat Hillary Clinton, who he thinks will win.
“I think she has policies that will make our country strong,” Wolf said. “If she is successful, and I think she will be, in promoting economic development, I think it will be good for Pennsylvania.”
While Wolf did not name Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, Wolf said the alternative scenario shows people are disaffected by the political system.
“People are looking for something different,” Wolf said. “People are fed up. People need to see that their government is one that they can trust.”
While this is a legitimate reason for concern, changes to the political system need to be addressed in an effective way, he said.
Tuesday, Wolf sent a letter asking the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to approve a dozen license applications to allow consumers to buy six-packs of beer and other malt beverages from businesses that also sell gasoline.
Wednesday, at its regular meeting, the PLCB granted nine licenses to convenience store businesses. The licenses allow them to sell two six-packs, or up to 192 ounces of takeout beer, per transaction.
“I ran on the idea of making our state store system and distribution of beer more convenient, so the consumer gets more choice and hopefully gets cheaper prices,” Wolf said. “I am on the side of the consumer, and I’m going to do what I can to make it better.”
The Brewers of Pennsylvania, the state’s official brewers guild, issued a statement supporting added opportunities for consumers to buy beer, preferably those brewed by Pennsylvania workers. However, allowing only gas stations to sell six-packs is simply an incremental step, the organization said.
To truly achieve consumer convenience as well as provide for a variety of purchasing options for consumers, the organization said six-pack sales should be allowed in all channels of trade. Doing so would immediately benefit all small craft beer producers in Pennsylvania, many of whom are members who employ an estimated 10,000 employees earning $296 million in wages and generating $1.1 billion in economic benefits to communities throughout the state, according to the organization.
Staff from Central Pennsylvania Business Journal, a sister publication of Lehigh Valley Business, contributed to this report.