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By Stephen Caruso | Spotlight PA
In his first year as Pennsylvania’s governor, Josh Shapiro won praise as a literal bridge builder, signed a state spending plan that included long-sought Democratic priorities, and helped expand a relief program for older homeowners.
The Democrat, a former state lawmaker who touts himself as a dealmaker, has nonetheless struggled at times to advance priorities through Harrisburg’s ideologically divided legislature. His record will depend on how well he can find middle ground, and he will be watched not just here in Pennsylvania but in national political circles as well.
His first major attempt at a deal blew up in his face. Shapiro negotiated a budget with the Republicans who control the state Senate, and according to the GOP, agreed to a package that would have funded private school vouchers with public dollars.
Amid widespread opposition from state House Democrats and organized labor, Shapiro vetoed the provision from the budget, throwing unfinished business into a tailspin and prompting Republican outcry that he had reneged.
“A lot of first-time governors, myself included, make this mistake,” said Ed Rendell, a Democrat who was Pennsylvania’s governor from 2003 to 2011 and has known Shapiro for decades. “We assume that our own party is going to support us, and not buck us on something that’s very important to us.”
“Always count heads,” Rendell said. “I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again.”
Shapiro also had to weather a series of events outside of his control beginning in the early months of his administration.
A little more than two weeks after his inauguration, the governor had to respond to the East Palestine train derailment less than a mile from Pennsylvania’s border, which released thousands of tons of toxic chemicals. And amid budget talks, the sudden collapse of an overpass on I-95, used by tens of thousands of Philadelphia commuters every day, required Shapiro to coordinate a temporary replacement in less than two weeks while under national scrutiny.
“There almost wasn’t a quote-unquote normal,” Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder told Spotlight PA of those early emergencies. “We were still figuring out, you know, where the lights were.”
Other unexpected bumps in the road came from the courts.
About a month into Shapiro’s governorship, Commonwealth Court found that the state’s education system was unconstitutionally underfunded, a ruling that presented Harrisburg with a mandate to take action on a thorny, far-reaching, and politically charged policy issue.
“I wonder if he had unpacked all his clothing before the courts made the ruling,” quipped state Rep. Peter Schweyer (D., Lehigh), who heads his chamber’s Education Committee.
But perhaps the thorniest problems of all came from within Harrisburg.
The governor’s miscalculation while negotiating an education plan resulted in bad blood with both state House Democrats and state Senate Republicans. While those tensions have since largely settled and lawmakers have made some progress in passing legislation, the budget remains undone, leaving libraries and community colleges without funding.
Shapiro has also faced criticism for his office’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Mike Vereb. As the administration’s legislative secretary and main liaison with chamber leaders, Vereb was one of Shapiro’s highest-profile staffers, and he is also one of the governor’s oldest political allies.
Relatively early in Shapiro’s tenure, a staffer in the governor’s office accused Vereb of sexual harassment. When reporters began asking the administration about the allegations months later, Vereb resigned without explanation.
As Spotlight PA later reported, the administration had quietly settled the claim a few weeks before Vereb’s resignation and required both sides to sign nondisclosure agreements. The office has broadly declined to comment on “personnel matters.”
State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) told Spotlight PA the accusations against Vereb were “the worst-kept secret in Harrisburg.”
Ward, who as Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking Republican is one of Shapiro’s chief political counterparts, said she heard rumblings of the situation even before June budget negotiations, and said it impacted their ability to finalize the deal.
In particular, Ward said that staff in the state’s agencies told her that Vereb “did not want to work with me” and that Vereb had advised agencies to talk to state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) on issues.
“Was it because he really couldn’t sit across the table from me? Or is it just a pattern of disrespect for women?” Ward told Spotlight PA. “I’m not sure. But that happened.”
Bonder declined to respond to Ward’s allegation, saying he would not “comment on a comment.” He added, “On matters related to the budget and the back and forth, [Shapiro has] had a very good, productive, cordial relationship with Sen. Pittman.”
Secrecy and transparency questions aren’t isolated to Shapiro’s handling of the allegations against Vereb.
Shortly after the November 2022 election, Shapiro had his transition team sign unusually strict nondisclosure agreements and declined to publicize the private donors who had funded his inaugural festivities — a departure from at least two immediate predecessors. He also decided to keep his daily schedule secret and relaxed predecessor Tom Wolf’s notoriously strict gift ban.
His administration will face tough tests in 2024. Shapiro and lawmakers will have to confront the findings of a legislative commission tasked with making public education more equitable, an issue that may come with a multibillion-dollar price tag. Pennsylvania will also be under a microscope as it administers a presidential election under a badly outdated law.
“Josh is pragmatic,” said Rendell. “There are things he cares about, but he knows — I always have a saying that I teach young people involved in politics, a song that informs how you should conduct your office.”
The song is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
‘GSD’ attitude meets partisan reality
In a speech to reporters in late November, Shapiro touted his administration’s “GSD” attitude.
“And we have gotten a lot of shit done,” he added.
His administration implemented “automatic voter registration” — a change that prompts Pennsylvanians to register to vote when they interact with PennDOT — and Shapiro signed an executive order that removed a college degree requirement for thousands of state jobs.
He secured money from the company behind the East Palestine train derailment for those affected and worked to bring $1.6 billion in federal money to the state to build two hydrogen hubs, seen as a potential clean energy game-changer.
The governor also signed into law expanded insurance coverage for breast cancer screenings, a long-needed update of a state property tax rebate for older people, and continued funding for universal free school breakfast.
Otherwise, the list of legislative accomplishments is short. As of Dec. 11, Shapiro had signed into law less than half as many bills as Wolf, his predecessor, did in his first year.
Some of the reasons behind the slow start have little to do with Shapiro.
For the first time in more than a decade, the legislature is divided with Democrats in control of the state House and Republicans in charge of the state Senate — meaning the parties must find common ground to get anything to Shapiro’s desk.
The power change in the lower chamber meant it took a while for the state House to get down to business, while subsequent vacancies have caused the Democratic majority to pump the brakes on action several times.
Combined with new faces in leadership, lawmakers in both chambers have acknowledged a learning curve in cutting deals.
“We are separate branches of this government,” Shapiro said at a news conference in December. “They have a responsibility to govern. And if they can’t figure that out — just pointing fingers at me … may make it a little bit easier for them temporarily, but it doesn’t serve the interests of the good people in Pennsylvania.”
Still, Shapiro did not do himself any favors when his heterodox stance on school vouchers helped kick off a budget impasse.
Shapiro presented his first budget proposal in March, asking lawmakers to extend some pandemic-era social programs and invest an additional $1 billion in education, among other priorities.
While not mentioned in his speech, Shapiro also supports the use of taxpayer money to fund private school vouchers, even listing the issue on his campaign website. Such a stance runs askew of his party and many of its financial backers, including organized labor.
Susan Spicka of the group Education Voters of PA said it was “confounding” that Shapiro made school vouchers the “centerpiece of this entire administration, especially when these are schools that are just flagrantly discriminatory and that really are not offering our children a better option.” She pointed to a report from her organization that found many schools that participate in an existing tax credit for students in low-achieving districts have policies that allow for discrimination against students.
State Senate Republicans included $100 million for a voucher program in a budget bill the caucus passed on June 30, the deadline. The upper chamber then recessed and left town, seemingly giving the state House and its Democratic majority two choices — take it or leave it.
A few days later, Shapiro met with voucher opponents including state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) and the Democratic members of the chamber’s Education Committee in a closed-door Capitol meeting.
“There were a lot of raw emotions [and] a lot of hard feelings about a lot of things,” Schweyer said, “but we got to a good place.”
That place included a promise: Shapiro said he would strike the $100 million for school vouchers from the final budget deal if state House Democrats put up the votes to pass the deal, according to Schweyer. Democrats agreed.
“We closed a budget deal, which is increasingly difficult as we’ve seen, and Shapiro kept his word,” Schweyer said.
Bonder told Spotlight PA that Shapiro still wants to pass a voucher program, which the governor believes could be “additive” to the commonwealth’s school system, particularly in its poorest districts.
“He was not going to accept a long, protracted, painful budget impasse, but he made clear that he thinks this is something that we need to keep working toward, and that continues to be the case right now and going forward,” Bonder said.
State Senate Republicans, meanwhile, still think Shapiro could have done more to get vouchers into the budget if the policy is a priority.
“You’ve got a lot of power and a lot of juice when you are governor, so if you are committed to something you can get it done,” said Ward, the chamber’s top lawmaker. “You have to get it done and you have tools in your toolbox to make that happen.”
Vouchers aren’t the only area where Shapiro has split from many in his party and its traditional allies. These intraparty disputes have been some of the trickiest for Shapiro, who is seen as a consensus-builder who is more motivated by accomplishment than ideology.
Shapiro has not endorsed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an interstate program to reduce carbon emissions, that was championed by Wolf and embraced by many Democrats. His administration is appealing a court decision that blocked the state’s participation but only to protect executive power.
The governor, however, is fully on board with hydrogen hubs, which refer to the infrastructure needed to produce, store, and transport the fuel and any byproducts. His administration in October said it helped to bring $1.6 billion in federal money to build two hubs partly in the commonwealth.
While environmental advocates have been cautiously optimistic about using hydrogen in hard-to-decarbonize industries, a lack of available detail on the Pennsylvania hubs has “disappointed” people like Pete Budden, who leads state and regional hydrogen policy work at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Budden said missing details about safety measures and exactly how the hubs will produce hydrogen makes it hard to advocate around the projects and propose oversight legislation.
But Shapiro has rebuffed those concerns, saying at one news conference that people “who are attacking this project, they’re standing in the way of real progress.”
That position has won Shapiro fierce support among many labor leaders, including Jim Snell, business manager at Philadelphia’s Steamfitters Local 420. At that same news conference, Snell recounted a morning in summer 2022 when then-candidate Shapiro called him to discuss getting Pennsylvania involved in hydrogen production.
“I thought, this guy’s the real deal, he really means it,” said Snell, adding that the commonwealth would never have gotten involved in two hubs “if it wasn’t for Governor Shapiro behind the scenes, doing what he needs to do.”
David Masur, who heads the group PennEnvironment and has known Shapiro for decades, said the governor’s mixed bag of positions on environmental issues is both characteristic of Shapiro and the compromises inherent in a politically divided, energy-producing state.
Masur believes that Shapiro is sincere in saying he wants to make Pennsylvania greener, but also that he feels he must be pragmatic to get anything done.
“The politics of Pennsylvania can be really tough,” Masur said.
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