File photo. TOM GRALISH / Philadelphia Inquirer

After Shapiro Reverses Position on School Vouchers, Pa. House Passes a Budget and Senate Cries Foul

July 6, 2023

Stephen Caruso, Kate Huangpu, and Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA

HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro succeeded in persuading House Democrats to pass a $45.5 billion state spending plan Wednesday night after pledging to line-item veto his own proposal to use public money to fund vouchers to private schools.

Shapiro had previously used the promise of the school voucher program to bring Republicans in control of the Senate to pass a budget that included several Democratic priorities. The about-face has angered conservatives who contend Shapiro double-crossed them.

For that reason, this may not be the final word on this year’s budget drama.

Lawmakers still have to approve code bills — complicated pieces of omnibus budget-enabling legislation that dictate state policy on things like taxing, spending, and education.

And, in a potentially more immediate problem, Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires that the presiding officers of each chamber sign off on all bills before they head to the governor’s desk. This is usually routine. However, the state Senate, now miffed by Shapiro’s reversal over vouchers, isn’t scheduled to be back in Harrisburg until September.

In a statement, Senate GOP leaders Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Joe Pittman (R., Armstrong) said Shapiro had “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached.”

They added, “the General Appropriation bill is not the final step in the budget process. The Senate will continue to await legislative action by the House on the remaining budgetary components, to see what House Democrats, with the slimmest majority, are able to advance.”

House Democrats fell in line behind Shapiro’s spending plan after he went public Wednesday with a pledge to scrap the voucher proposal he had previously supported — a $100 million program for scholarships for students in “low-achieving” public school districts to attend private schools. The governor said the move was necessary to end the budget impasse, and noted House Democrats would probably be able to block the program via code bills, anyway.

“Knowing that the two chambers will not reach consensus at this time to enact [the voucher program], 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 wrote.

Speaking from the floor before the chamber passed the spending plan 117 to 86, House Democratic Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) commended members for avoiding a long impasse and showing “that bipartisanship is possible.”

The voucher program, known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (or PASS), was a priority for leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate, who only agreed to spend more money on Democratic proposals in return for it.

Senate Republicans have said nothing publicly since Shapiro announced he would change course.

But his reversal effectively cut the caucus out of budget talks. The primary recourse members of the legislature have against a line-item veto is a veto override, which requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber and would be vanishingly unlikely in this case.

While Senate GOP leaders have stayed mum, rank-and-file Republicans in both chambers expressed private and public discontent with the deal.

“This would be incredibly shortsighted for [Shapiro] and I’d view it as a sign that he negotiated in bad faith with the Senate,” state Sen. Jarrett Coleman (R., Bucks) tweeted Wednesday afternoon of the prospect of a line-item voucher veto.

Speaking from the chamber floor, state House Minority Appropriations Committee Chair Seth Grove (R., York) said Wednesday night, “How do we trust anything anybody says in this body?”

Conservative groups echoed similar sentiments. Commonwealth Partners, which has been among Pennsylvania’s most active groups pushing for vouchers, issued a statement from CEO Matt Brouillette saying that Shapiro “reneged on his word to the people of Pennsylvania.”

Keystone Forward, another free-market group, called Shapiro’s maneuver “a stunning double-cross.”

The budget now on track to go before Shapiro is a roughly 5% spending increase over last year’s enacted plan, and much of that is going toward education, including $567 million in K-12 education funding. The plan also includes several Democratic priorities, like universal free school breakfast, $100 million in supplemental spending for the poorest school districts, and the commonwealth’s first-ever funding for public legal defense.

However, it still routes considerably less money into public education than House Democrats had initially sought. Caucus leaders have said they think Pennsylvania must invest more heavily in education after a state judge ruled that the commonwealth’s education system is unconstitutionally inequitable and must be fixed.

The commonwealth has roughly $12 billion on hand, which lawmakers will be able to use to balance out increased spending. Throughout budget talks, Democrats had pushed to spend more of this money on education while Republicans, concerned about an economic downturn, advocated saving much of it to avoid future budget shortfalls.

Along with the still-unpassed code bills, the legislature needs to move an annual in-state tuition subsidy for Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities. This $600 million is unique in that it requires approval by a two-thirds majority of the legislature, which means the funding is easy for dissidents to block. The House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative members, says it specifically aims to hold up funding for Penn State. Votes to pass the schools’ funding failed by double-digit margins last month.

The eventual resolution of this year’s budget won’t end discussions over vouchers in Harrisburg.

In his statement Wednesday, Shapiro said that as a condition for stripping vouchers out of the budget bill, he had gotten a pledge from House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) that the chamber would consider alternative school funding programs in the future.

“Leader Bradford has given me his word — and he has written a letter outlining directly to Leader Pittman — that he will carefully examine and consider additional education options,” Shapiro said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

In the letter, Bradford said while there was not “enough time to meaningfully review and scrutinize the voucher proposal” as part of the state budget, he plans to direct House Appropriations Chair Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) and Education Chair Pete Schweyer (D., Lehigh) to hold hearings exploring it.

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