By Peter Hall & Marley Parish | Pennsylvania Capital-Star
The Pennsylvania House passed a $45.5 billion state budget late Wednesday that includes nearly $1 billion in additional funding for public education after Gov. Josh Shapiro said he would use his line-item veto power to remove funding for a school voucher plan unpopular with his fellow Democrats.
Although Republican leaders decried Shapiro’s school voucher veto promise as “an escape hatch” to avoid a vote on an issue that had divided his party and said it would leave students stranded in failing schools, 15 House Republicans voted in favor of the spending plan.
Shapiro said in a statement Wednesday night that he plans to sign the budget, which accomplishes many priorities announced in his March 7 budget address — including investments in education, workforce development, public safety, economic and community development and agriculture.
“A budget is a statement of our priorities — and with new investments in students, teachers, seniors, moms, families, farmers, workers, cops, emergency responders, business owners, and more, this is a budget for all Pennsylvanians,” the Democratic governor said.
Before Shapiro announced his plans to line-item veto the $100 million for the voucher program, Senate Republicans, who control the upper chamber, said the proposal reflected a “give-and-take” negotiation process, vowing to stand behind Shapiro if he continued pushing for the vouchers despite opposition from legislative Democrats.
But after Wednesday’s vote in the House, Senate GOP leaders — Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and Appropriations Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster — said the governor “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached, leaving tens of thousands of children across Pennsylvania in failing schools.”
“It is a shame the governor does not have enough respect and standing within his own party to follow through with his promise,” they said. “Strong leadership requires the ability to bring people together. But instead, we are met with Gov. Shapiro’s failure to deliver his commitment to empower parents and give children access to educational opportunities.”
The Senate is not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until mid-September, with leadership planning to wait for the House to act on the remaining budget-related bills “to see what House Democrats, with the slimmest majority, are able to advance.”
In debate on the House floor, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said Shapiro’s rationale for vetoing the voucher funding applied to a number of new programs included in the budget.
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 voucher program, the administration would be unable to follow through. That means the $100 million allocated for the program would “sit idle in a treasury account.”
Grove, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said the lower chamber also had not passed so-called code bills for other programs, including supplementary funding for the state’s 100 poorest school districts, $7.5 million to help counties pay for public defenders for the first time, and a program to help low-income homeowners pay for repairs.
“What’s the truth?” Grove asked. “How do we trust anything? … How do we work together moving forward if we can’t count on the simple handshake agreements? Today is not a good day for Pennsylvania.”
House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the House had also failed to pass legislation tied to the budget to reduce public assistance fraud or address what Republicans say is a structural deficit in which costs will exceed revenues in coming years.
But, Cutler said, many lawmakers would vote for the budget when they don’t believe in it because they want to avoid a lengthy impasse.
“Today’s vote will leave students and families who desire choice, who want nothing more than the opportunity for a better education and a better future out in the cold, or what some outside of this institution might call simple political convenience,” Cutler said.
House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said the House would have opportunities to address many priorities shared by both parties, such as improving the state’s business climate through tax reform. Bradford on Wednesday also pledged to work with House and Senate lawmakers to advance public education alternatives in the future.
“We have avoided an impasse, and we have shown that bipartisanship is possible with a little bit of compromise that is out of the comfort level of each and every one of us,” Bradford said.