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February in the Capitol – Spring Training for the Budget Season?

February in Harrisburg, like spring training in Florida and Arizona, is a time for the players to get back in shape, work with possible new player combinations, learn whether the gifted rookie really fits in the lineup, find the true power hitters, and prepare for the real season which begins when the Governor throws out his first budget pitch in early March.  

Despite the fact that the Governor is not scheduled to give his budget address until March 3, much of this week’s activity will impact the eventual discussions on closing the hole in the state’s $2 billion deficit.  The House, Senate and Governor are all looking to June with quite varied financial and ideological strategies.  

This week in Harrisburg also provided ample evidence that there is never a dull moment here – at least in the effort to secure top billing in the news media, Twitterverse and Instagram world.  Governor Wolf made daily announcements and pronouncements, the majority leaders of the House and Senate took to the media to discuss political, financial and even sports issues, and on slow news days, the new Governor managed to get media attention over “behind the scenes” actions.

Monday found Governor Wolf announcing that he would start to dismantle Healthy PA, Corbett Administration’s Medicaid expansion plan in favor of a “simple, traditional” Medicaid expansion which eliminates tiered programs and screening requirements. Under the Wolf plan, the federal government will pay the costs of new Medicaid recipients for the first year, but will be reduced to an eventual 90% in 2020.  Republican leaders questioned the ultimate budget cost of the new program, which is dependent on full and continuing federal funding, and bemoaning the loss of choice by Medicaid recipients.  The Governor does not need legislative approval for this action but several programs passed by the General Assembly as part of Healthy PA, will be subject to further negotiations.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R, Indiana) took Monday afternoon to talk about the House’s plans to pass legislation to privatize the state liquor system as its way to balance the state budget.  (see story below.) Speaker Mike Turzai has repeatedly said his privatization plan will raise more than $1 billion from the sale of the system assets.  Reed said that the House would pass a bill before the end of February and later in the week, the House announced plans for a five day workweek beginning February 23 to do just that.  The Senate has previously rejected full privatization, and Governor Wolf has consistently opposed this in favor of as yet undefined modernizations.

The next day, the Governor announced that enacting a higher minimum wage is one of his priorities. Raising the wage floor will provide benefits to the economy and make the free market work better, he insisted.  House Republican leadership was quick to message the almost certain fate of this proposal in no uncertain terms, and citing loss of jobs impact on budget discussions.

Warming up fully to the task of meeting his campaign promises within his first 100 days, on Wednesday, Governor Wolf formally unveiled his severance tax and plans to finance education from additional fees and taxes on unconventional gas companies – the top story of the week.  (See story below) At least one major producer is on record that it might pull up stakes in Pennsylvania if taxes are raised, and again, legislative leaders were quick to comment, calling it DOA and saying it was a nine percent tax, not a five percent tax. Most of the proceeds would go to public education, and various officials, groups attacked the plan for its size, cost, and where any proceeds should go.

That afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman held a press conference to release documents from the lawsuit filed by Corman and former Treasurer Rob McCord, calling for the NCAA to fire its president Mark Emmert for his actions against Penn State University and asking for a full Congressional investigation of the NCAA.  Corman and McCord had sued the NCAA over its penalties which included $60 million in fines to be used for prevention of child abuse, insisting that any fines paid by the University should be used in Pennsylvania.  The NCAA responded that Corman has used the lawsuit to gain personal power, an accusation laughable in Harrisburg, but picked up by some in the national media.

Thursday’s Capitol news was not issue-related.  Governor Wolf made headlines for two disparate activities.  News stories showed the new kind of Governor strolling through the halls of the Capitol, visiting offices of House and Senate members, and talking, taking selfies with legislative staff.  And we saw the first of an expected series of stories which outline how even Wolf’s campaign apparatus never sleeps, pushing out fundraising emails requesting funds from supporters with each new campaign pledge put into practice.

And the Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that it had chosen Philadelphia as the site of their 2016 nominating convention. The city won out over Brooklyn, N.Y. and Columbus, Ohio.  

This morning, Wolf announced a moratorium on the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania.  He said the state’s current death penalty is “a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive,” fulfilling another campaign promise.