Wolf defends budget against GOP criticism, says he's trying to solve decades-old problems



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HAMBURG, Pennsylvania — A day after outlining his first budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf punched back Wednesday at strident Republican criticism of his plan to raise taxes on income, sales and natural gas drilling to bankroll more than $4 billion in education aid and cuts to corporate and property taxes.

Wolf said he is trying to solve decades-old problems that are dragging down Pennsylvania, including a heavy reliance on property taxes for school funding that has dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor school districts.

The plan would deliver nearly $1 billion in aid to public schools, prekindergarten programs and higher education institutions, plus $3.2 billion for schools to help lower property tax bills.

It would be designed to deliver tax cuts to homeowners whose incomes are below $100,000, while those who earn more would pay more. Democrats and education advocates have lauded the plan as an appropriate response to the deep cuts sustained under four years of Republican control in Harrisburg.

Wolf, a Democrat, said it makes the tax system fairer, improves the business climate and helps lower-income homeowners by expanding the state's role in funding schools to 50 percent for the first time since the 1970s. Meanwhile, it invests in the state's most crucial area, education, he said.

But leaders of the Legislature's large Republican majorities flatly say the size of the increase Wolf is seeking is unacceptable.

"I think that's posturing," Wolf said after he toured the Downingtown STEM Academy in Chester County, the state's No. 1 ranked school for two years running. "How can it be dead in the water when it's something that every Pennsylvanian tells me they want? This is something I heard throughout the two years I was running for governor. I'm sure they heard it too."

Wolf toured classrooms of students working on applied physics projects, posed for photos with the mascot, a wolf, and met a teacher also named Tom Wolf. The governor said lawmakers repeatedly told him during their meetings that property tax cuts were their biggest issue.

"I don't care if they were Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative, rural or urban," he said. "It was property tax relief and that's what I'm talking about here ... They ought to talk to their constituents and say, 'would you like to have a reduction in your property tax?'"

Wolf also toured Hamburg Area High School in Berks County, which specializes in science and technology, as he works to make his case to the public.

Combined with $600 million in existing casino gambling money for property tax cuts, $3.8 billion in property tax cuts would be divided up among the 500 school districts. Just over $2 billion would go to districts in the bottom half of average income.

Most homeowners would qualify for large reductions in their school property taxes. Details remain sketchy, but the administration calculated Wolf's proposals would reduce homeowners' school property tax bill by more than 50 percent, with an average homeowner seeing a $1,000 reduction.

Still, some Republicans insist that the property tax cut would eventually disappear because school districts will simply keep raising property taxes. Wolf countered that the new money would eliminate the need to increase property taxes, but he noted his Department of Education would ensure that it goes toward core education programs and tax cuts.

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