This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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Education advocates got exactly what they wanted in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election Tuesday: a progressive Democrat who puts education at the top of his priority list.
Gov.- elect Tom Wolf has big plans for providing relief to resource-strapped classrooms across the commonwealth, but onlookers and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle concur that Wolf’s agenda faces a very steep climb.
Despite a fervent effort to push incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett out of office, Wolf supporters aren’t so naive to think the York county businessman can wave a magic wand and give schools all the resources they need immediately.
"It was never going to be over Nov. 4," said Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education. "That was just the first step in a really long haul to right the state and put it back on track."
"I mean right now, starting today, nothing’s different," said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA. "As long as people understand that we took a great leap forward, but we’re not there … we can continue to send a message to the legislature, and I think they’re going to have to listen."
The legislature, though, underwent changes itself on Election Day, and not in ways that will make Wolf’s agenda any easier. Republicans gained three seats in the state Senate and at least eight in the House of Representatives.
"The new configuration of the legislature will make it harder for some policies, but I don’t think there’s any question that the electorate sent a message that they want to see more education funding, and they think it’s time for a severance tax," said Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank.
First hurdle: Severance tax
The severance tax Ward references is a 5 percent statewide tax on natural gas drilling that Wolf championed through his campaign. Wolf believes the tax will generate $1 billion in its first year, the largest chunk of which he wants to use to increase funding for K-12 education. Wolf is on record saying the tax should be "easy" to advance.
Republican lawmakers doubt the tax will actually generate anything close to Wolf’s estimate; they also aren’t ready to rubber stamp it.
"Applying a severance tax is not as simple as saying, all right, boom, it’s 5 percent, end of story," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi, a Delaware County Republican. "There are a lot of details that go into exactly where, when and how a tax like that is administered and levied."
Hanging over every conversation about increased spending is this fact: The state is likely to face a $2 billion deficit next year in large part because last year’s budget relied on a large chunk of one-time, nonrecurring funds.
"Those have to be addressed first," said Arneson. "They can be addressed one of two ways, of course — by allocating the funds to pay for them or by cutting back the costs somehow."
Translation: Wolf won’t be able to increase education spending unless he first finds a way to make up for the looming $2 billion deficit.