Schools, farms and voting machines in Wolf's budget sights

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars more for schools in his budget proposal released Tuesday, as well as a sprinkling of money for new voting machines and programs to improve worker training and the agricultural sector.

The Democrat is also seeking new college benefits for members of the National Guard who re-enlist and tuition aid for community college students who remain in Pennsylvania.

In his budget address to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature, Wolf said the most significant element of the $34.1 billion budget plan, his first since winning a second term, is its efforts to help Pennsylvanians compete in a changing economy by bolstering skills and education.

He called it "a plan to create a new generation of prosperity in our commonwealth by building the strongest workforce in the nation."

"Our challenge demands an all-hands-on-deck approach," Wolf told lawmakers in the address. "And this budget proposal itself asks Pennsylvanians to come together -- business leaders, educators, students, workers -- to address the challenge of renewing our prosperity for another generation."

Including nearly $500 million in supplemental cash for the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for another $1.9 billion in new spending, or nearly 6 percent more.

The proposal would not increase the state's taxes on income and sales. But Wolf last week laid out a parallel plan to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to finance borrowing for an ambitious capital plan that would fund a wide range of projects.

Wolf's first term was marked by long, drawn-out budget fights with Republican lawmakers. The new proposal is modest in comparison to his earliest plans, which carried multibillion-dollar tax increases, and seems to reflect Wolf's shift in strategy in the past couple years to the realities of negotiating with big Republican majorities.

The extra spending would largely go toward public schools, prisons, pension obligations, health care for the poor, mental health services and social services for children, the elderly and disabled. The administration said the plan carries a half-billion dollars in new initiatives.

To help fund it, Wolf's administration is counting on tax collections to rise by a solid 3 percent, plus hundreds of millions of dollars from money already appropriated, higher assessments on Medicaid providers and a fee on municipalities that rely only on state troopers to provide police coverage.

Pennsylvania's tax collections are perhaps in their best shape since the recession a decade ago. But the state is facing challenges, including rising borrowing costs, a ballooning retirement-age population and a static working-age population.

Most of the new money in Wolf's budget would go to public schools, including $200 million for general operations and instruction. About $13 million of that would finance a boost in the state's decades-old minimum wage for teachers from $18,500 to $45,000, a provision officials said would mostly benefit rural school districts.

Schools would get another $50 million for special education and $45 million for school safety, a higher priority after last February's mass high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Wolf also wants to lower the age at which children in Pennsylvania must attend schools, currently age 8, to age 6, a change projected to affect about 3,300 children. He also wants to raise the permissible dropout age from 17 to 18. State officials said nearly 4,400 17-year-olds left school without graduating in the 2016-17 school year.

Another $50 million would go toward expanding the number of state-subsidized slots for pre-kindergarten, while the state would borrow more money for school construction projects.