Friday, June 24, 2016

A conversation with Gov. Tom Wolf

It must be budget time.

What else could explain the phone call I got yesterday.

Yes, that was Gov. Wolf calling to say hello and talk Pennsylvania dollars and cents. Always nice to chat with the governor, who makes it a habit to reach out to newspaper editors.

I started the conversation by joking about something that I noted on our editorial page, wondering if they were putting something in the water out there in Harrisburg.

The Legislature, after a torturous nine-month budget standoff last year, actually is getting a few things done.

They delivered much-needed changes to the state's archaic laws regulating the sale of alcohol to the governor's desk, and he signed it. They are working on pension relief.

And most indications are that the two sides are quietly making progress in budget talks taking part for the most part behind closed doors.

I asked Wolf about his seeming change of heart in abandoning another push for hefty tax hikes to pay for a new spending push, and he admitted he wasn't sure if he had been completely understood. He stressed that he was never married to those increases in both the sales and personal income taxes. When he was convinced that he could achieve his budget goals without the tax hikes, he decided to move on.

That's no doubt music to the ears of Republicans in the Legislature, who immediately turn up their nose at even the slightest hint of a tax hike.

The governor also sought to assuage the belief by some that this means he is abandoning his call for a steep increase in basic education funding. The governor noted that with the last budget and the one he is now proposing, education funding would be up $450 million.

Wolf also said he was certainly willing to entertain the notion passed by the House this week, a push for legalizing online gaming, as a source of new revenue. But the governor insisted he'd only do it as part of a wider budget agreement.

Finally, I asked him if he thought he and the Legislature would be able to meet the July 1 deadline to have a new spending plan in place. We all know how that worked out last year. We were still asking where the budget was at Christmas time.

Wolf seemed optimistic, but also cautioned it could go a few days past the deadline.

"Nobody wants another nine-month impasse," the governor said, clearly indicating that the process he and the Legislature endured last year might be "a lesson learned."

But he also took clear pride in noting some of the things that both he and the Legislature have been able to accomplish in the past few months.

Call anytime, governor.

Now that I will be able to buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket, how about privatizing the whole system?

Maybe I shouldn't push my luck.

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