HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf is renewing his annual call for the state Legislature to approve a new tax on natural gas drilling, saying he now wants to direct the proceeds toward an ambitious workforce development expansion to train and retrain workers coming out of the COVID-19 economic crisis.

Wolf had previously suggested that the tax on drilling would be used for a wide variety of infrastructure needs. On Thursday, in a press conference previewing next Tuesday’s budget address, Wolf said he now thinks the federal government may provide funding that could be used for many of those infrastructure projects so he said he’s now proposing that the gas tax be used for workforce development.

Wolf has repeatedly called for a tax on drilling and the effort has never gotten to the finish line.

The state Senate approved the tax on drilling in 2017 but that legislation died in the state House.

Since then, the number of Republicans in the state Senate willing to back the tax has probably decreased and there’s no indication the state House is any more eager to embrace a new tax, said state Sen. Gene Yaw, the longtime chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

The proposed drilling tax “is an easy target” for Wolf to continue taking aim at because it appeals to Democratic voters, Yaw sad.

Business groups quickly lambasted the idea.

David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, said the idea of adding the tax on drilling would “threaten our commonwealth’s business competitiveness and America’s roles as global energy leader.”

He added that adding a tax on drilling activity as the state tries to recover from the pandemic slowdown is “self-defeating and stupid.”

Wolf’s proposals are “unsurprising,” but “disappointing,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.

“Gov. Wolf outlined the continuation of his tax-and-spend pattern of picking winners and losers,” he said, adding that Wolf shouldn’t even be talking about other priorities than the rollout of the state’s COVID vaccine.

Under Wolf’s drilling tax plan, the state would take out a bond to pay for the workforce development effort and then use the proceeds from the tax on gas to cover the payments on the borrowing. Wolf had previously suggested that the plan would generate $4.5 billion, but Thursday he said that the market has changed so it’s not clear exactly how much the state could get.

“We’d have to look at what it would produce. But it would produce a lot of money,” he said.

Investing in helping people train for better jobs is “going to help us come out of this pandemic faster than anything else we can do,” Wolf said.

The governor also indicated that he still wants the General Assembly to approve an increase in the minimum wage – to $12 an hour, with 50 cents a year increases until the state reaches $15 an hour, and to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana.

Like the severance tax, neither proposal has gotten traction in the General Assembly in prior years, though Wolf noted that with Democrats controlling both chambers in Congress and the White House, the federal minimum wage could be increased to $15 which would make his proposal “moot.”

Other proposals

Invest in public Infrastructure, including school buildings – Last year, the governor proposed a plan to remediate lead, asbestos and other hazardous materials from our schools using the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP). The governor is proposing using the RACP program to fund not just hazard remediation to keep students safe when they return to school but also efforts to close the digital divide among our students by broadening the RACP eligibility criteria to include broadband providers and schools, according to an outline provided by his office.

Allocate $145 million to Pennsylvania businesses – Wolf is once again calling on the General Assembly to appropriate $145 million in reserves from the Workers Compensation Security Fund to immediately allocate to businesses harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reform the criminal justice system – The governor is proposing bail reform, indigent defense funding, a comprehensive expansion to our Clean Slate Law, probation reform and other policies that will build on bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system.

Build on election reform – The governor’s plan calls for same-day voter registration. Currently, eligible voters have until 15 days prior to an election to register to vote, regardless of whether they register online, through the mail, or in person. With new opportunities to vote with no-excuse mail ballots, and early voting at county election offices, same-day registration would allow new voters to go to their precinct, register, and vote all in one visit. To verify their identification, eligible voters would need to provide proof of residency and a form of identification. Funding would be allocated to assist counties in purchasing electronic poll books (EPBs), and to allow the commonwealth to build a closed network.

The governor is also calling for strengthening voter intimidation restrictions. Voter intimidation can take many forms. For all voters to feel safe from intimidation when casting their ballot, legislation should be passed to prohibit firearms from being allowed in all polling locations.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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