Wolf proposes $325M for business aid, calls for recreational pot revenue to provide long-term funding

Justin Henry//August 25, 2020

Wolf proposes $325M for business aid, calls for recreational pot revenue to provide long-term funding

Justin Henry//August 25, 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf answering questions from the press on Tuesday.  PHOTO/PROVIDED


Gov. Tom Wolf urged lawmakers to approve $325 million in aid for small businesses as part of a statewide pandemic relief package funded by Pennsylvania’s CARES Act allocation. The governor also proposed financing long-term small business support programs by legalizing recreational marijuana and taxing it.

The proposals, included in Wolf’s legislative priorities unveiled ahead of the General Assembly’s plan to reconvene next week, call on the lawmakers to approve more than $700 million in aid to families and workers, and $225 million for small business grant and loan programs. Wolf also called for $100 million in grant opportunities for the hospitality and service industries, which have been decimated by the pandemic and mandated business closure orders.

Money would come from the remaining $1 billion in Pennsylvania CARES Act funds that have been placed in reserve. The governor advocated a long-term solution for the state’s small business aid funding that would require the GOP-led General Assembly to legalize a new source of revenue: recreational marijuana.

“The legislature must come back and take immediate steps to provide funding to front-line workers and businesses, put in place protections for families and our workforce, and make these commonsense reforms that can provide confidence in our government,” Wolf said at a Tuesday press conference. “Pennsylvanians need relief, they need reform, and they need it now.”

Republican leaders in the General Assembly were quick to pan the proposal, calling it an attempt by Wolf to score political points for his party ahead of November elections and use tax funds to “bail” him out of an economically damaging response to the pandemic

“The governor is clearly not interested in governing,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Lewistown, said in a statement. “If he were, he would have reached out to legislative leaders at some point during the summer to discuss a fall agenda. Instead, he sends out a political document and takes partisan shots at elected officials.”

To provide greater relief for restaurants and bars, Wolf called for the cancellation or reduction of alcohol taxes for the hospitality and service industries over a six-month period. Over time, he said, the alcohol tax revenue could be supplemented by revenue generated by recreational marijuana.

Wolf suggested earmarking some portion of the marijuana-generated revenue for “restorative justice” programs aimed at repairing harm caused by the drug war.

Included in the $700 million for families and workers is $225 million in increased hazard pay to workers, amounting to a $3 per hour increase for 208,000 front-line workers in the commonwealth.

Some $10 million would be used by employers to cover the cost of industry-specific PPE to comply with state and federal guidelines. This so-named PPE Reimbursement Program would provide grants of up to $5,000 to Pennsylvania small businesses with fewer than 150 employees and counties who provide PPE to election workers.

Some $250 million would be made available for families in need of childcare because of changes to their school routine, with an additional $27 million reserved for so-called “deserts,” or areas of the state where there are few options for childcare.

Wolf’s plan includes a number of proposed government reform initiatives and provisions to secure voting in November. The governor said the commonwealth should ban government officials from accepting gifts and put a cap on contributions to candidates seeking elected office.

Wolf is asking lawmakers to allow the pre-canvassing of ballots 21 days before Election Day, while providing counties flexibility to fill vacant poll-worker positions earlier than the five days prior to an election currently allowed. The governor is asking the General Assembly to pass legislation to allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked on Election Day and received by the Friday after the election.

Wolf’s proposal didn’t include employer protections from COVID-related lawsuits, which industry trade groups have said are necessary to safeguard businesses operating in good-faith from frivolous lawsuits and would provide industries the confidence to restart the economy.

“Across the commonwealth, businesses, nonprofits, child care and academic facilities and the medical community have invested tremendous resources, time and energy in order to adhere to these guidelines and operate in a safe manner,” Barr said. “Those who have made this investment should proceed with confidence that they will not be targeted with unwarranted lawsuits brought by opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys seeking to capitalize on this pandemic.”