Tom Wolf, the only Democrat to beat an incumbent Republican governor in November, wants to extend his disruptive streak by upending Pennsylvania’s taxes.
Wolf, a businessman in his first elected office, proposed a new tax on natural-gas drilling, the state’s first sales-levy increase in almost a half-century and a boost in the income tax to a record. The plan, released March 3 as part of his budget, would generate $4.7 billion, enough to close a projected deficit, reduce property taxes and fulfill a campaign pledge to raise education funding.
The 66-year-old took the helm as the state deals with mounting pension costs. Pennsylvania had its credit grade cut by each of the three biggest rating companies last year, to two steps below the average for U.S. states. Credit analysts pointed to one-time fixes used to balance this year’s budget.
The latest proposal differs from previous plans that were “piecing things together with duct tape,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. “His shooting for a big move is pretty important because we haven’t seen it in a while.”
Wolf joins about 10 governors considering tax increases, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. The levies often are tied to particular needs, such as infrastructure or education, said Norton Francis, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center in Washington.
“It makes it more palatable when you can say we’re raising taxes for this express purpose,” Francis said.
Wolf beat Tom Corbett, the first Pennsylvania governor to lose re-election since 1968, even as Republican victories gave the party 31 governorships, the most since 1999.
Corbett kept residents’ taxes flat, lowered some business levies and cut funding for education and other programs. He failed to push through changes to public pensions, which are consuming a growing portion of the general fund, and a sale of the state’s wholesale and retail alcohol operations.
Pennsylvania ranked last in job growth from January 2011, when Corbett took office, to December 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. As expenses swelled, lawmakers balanced the $29 billion budget for the year through June with $2 billion of one-time measures.