Gov. Shapiro Drops Voucher Plan To End Impasse As PA House Lawmakers Return To Session

In exchange for their support, the governor has reportedly assured House Democrats that he will remove a controversial voucher program for private schools from the budget.

By Marley Parish & Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star

A view of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. File photo.

As Republican and Democratic state lawmakers appeared to reach an impasse in state budget negotiations, Gov. Josh Shapiro said Wednesday afternoon that he would line-item veto a provision to fund private school tuition vouchers, also known as “lifeline scholarships,” for K-12 school students.

House Democrats, who maintain a narrow majority in the lower chamber, have yet to act on a $45 billion budget sent by the Republican-controlled Senate ahead of the June 30 deadline, clashing over $100 million for the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success initiative, which would let parents of children in the lowest-performing 15% of school districts apply for up to $15,000 in taxpayer-funded private school tuition.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro — who previously backed the voucher program — is considering options to compromise on it. 

“Knowing that the two chambers will not reach consensus at this time to enact PASS, and unwilling to hold up our entire budget process over this issue, I will line-item veto the full $100 million appropriation and it will not be part of this budget bill,” Shapiro said in a statement. 

While Shapiro said he is disappointed the General Assembly could not agree on the voucher program, House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, has assured Shapiro and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, that House Democrats would consider voucher and educational tax credit programs in their effort to comply with a court order to provide equal education funding across the state.

“Our Commonwealth should not be plunged into a painful, protracted budget impasse while our communities wait for the help and resources this commonsense budget will deliver,” Shapiro said.

In a letter to House Democrats’ Chief Counsel Tara Hazelwood, Jennifer Selber, general counsel for the administration, said that without legislation empowering the Education Department to create the PASS program, the administration would be unable to follow through with the $100 million plan. That means the money allocated for the program would “sit idle in a treasury account.”

Citing a 2005 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Selber said that the general appropriations bill, which is the main budget bill, cannot include language to authorize new programs. Furthermore, the state Constitution prevents the Legislature from delegating lawmaking to other branches of the government, and there is nothing in the state’s School Code or any other law that provides the Education Department with authority to create such a program, Selber said.

“Without additional statutory authority for PDE to create the PASS program, there would be no authority for PDE to utilize the money from that line item to create such a program,” Selber wrote. 

Senate Republicans said the upper chamber, which won’t return to Harrisburg until mid-September as of Wednesday, had fulfilled its constitutional obligation by passing a budget ahead of the deadline and collaborating with Shapiro.

The upper chamber also approved the program as a standalone bill after amending language into previously unrelated legislation dealing with funding for ambulance services. That legislation would have authorized the administration to create the voucher program. 

Most Democrats, however, have taken a firm position that funding school vouchers would take money away from public schools that could be used to address the fair funding mandate handed down earlier this year by the Commonwealth Court.

Bradford said last week the lower chamber would not consider the bill. It died in the House Rules Committee with a vote along party lines on Friday. The House is scheduled to return for a voting session at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Pittman told reporters last week that lawmakers in the upper chamber would let the governor and House Democrats negotiate what comes next in the budgetary process, adding that fiscal responsibility is the No. 1 priority for Senate GOP lawmakers. He previously described the $46 billion budget proposal from House Democrats as “an impossible number.”

The spending proposal passed by the Senate, which saw opposition from every Democrat, represented a “give-and-take” between the Shapiro administration and Senate leaders, Appropriations Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said that if the House returns a budget bill to the Senate without the private school vouchers, the final result will be “a very slimmed down, scaled back budget.” But if Shapiro still supports the program, Senate Republicans “will stand with him and fight for it,” she said.

“There were a lot of things in this budget that we didn’t really want to do. We didn’t really want to spend this money,” Ward said. “But, it was all part of the big, overall agreement. So, you know, if they send it back without something, then the agreement is null and void.”

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