Six months after the general appropriation bill was passed by the Pennsylvania House and Senate and signed by Governor Shapiro, the House, and Senate today took the necessary step to complete the state budget by passing the Fiscal and School Code bills. These code bills are necessary for two reasons. First, some of the previously appropriated funds cannot be spent without the programmatic instructions found in the code bills. Second, some elements of what we think of as the budget consists of tax credits that cannot be included in the General Appropriation bill.
Like any bill that must pass a House controlled by Democrats and a Senate controlled by Republicans, the School and Fiscal Code bills contain many compromises.
From our point of view, it is unfortunate that the School Code includes an additional $150 million in funding demanded by the Senate for our existing tax-credit-based school voucher programs, the Education Improvement Tax Credit, and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. But while we believe these programs are a problematic use of the tax dollars that should go to our public schools, the program has been tweaked a bit to reduce the amount of overhead that the organizations that pass funds to private schools can keep: from 20% to 10%. Some minor accountability measures have been added to the program but it appears that the full suite of accountability measures that House Democrats have proposed—which would finally allow us to understand who, if anyone actually benefits from these programs—were not included. Schools that received tax-credit vouchers will continue to be able to discriminate based on religion, disability, LGBTQ+ status of students of their parents, academic performance and on the basis of whether a student is pregnant or has had an abortion.
We are also distressed that the $100 million in Level Up funding for our most severely underfunded schools was not included in the Education Code.
On the other hand, there are some important programs—detailed below and championed mostly by Democrats the Senate and House—that will benefit students in our public schools and community colleges, as well as working people who are caring for children or seniors.
We detail these good programs below. But what this compromise should show us is that those who say there is no tension between vouchers and public school funding are mistaken. Over the last ten years or more, Republicans have continued to hold public school funding and other programs hostage to continued funding of our existing school voucher program.
Much of the language in the School and Fiscal Code bills deals with housekeeping matters that are not subject to much controversy. However, a few important decisions have been made after a long discussion between the parties.
SCHOOL CODE (HB 301)
Educator Pipeline Support Grant Program. This program provides grants of $10,000 to student teachers or $15,000 if the student teachers work in a school with high turnover. This is an important program that will help address our teacher shortage.
Libraries. The School Code authorizes an additional $70.47 million in subsidies to public libraries across the state.
Student Teacher Flexibility. This provision will allow retired teachers to be hired as substitutes without losing their pensions. This is another program that will help address our teacher shortage.
Mental Health. The School Code transfers $100 million appropriated for COVID relief to the School Safety and Security Fund. Ninety million dollars in funds will be distributed to school districts, career and technical schools, charter and cyber charter schools, and intermediate units to enhance student mental health treatment.
Environmental Repairs Program. The Environmental Repairs Program will provide grants to school districts, career and technical schools, charter and cyber charter schools, and intermediate units for the abatement or remediation of environmental hazards in school buildings including the abatement or remediation of lead.
FISCAL CODE (HB 1300)
Some of the important elements in the Fiscal Code have been moved from the Tax Code, including the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. This part of the fiscal code enhances a program that was initiated in last year’s budget, a state tax credit for the costs of caring for children and other dependents (such as seniors) when such care is necessary for taxpayers to hold a job. The language in the Fiscal Code increases the amount of tax credit that Pennsylvanians can take. The current child care tax credit is increased from 30% to 100% of the federal child care and dependent tax credit. The size of the child care tax credit is based on income. The largest biggest tax credit would now be $2,100, up from $630, under current state law for families making with an income $43,000 who spend $6,000 or more on care for two children.
Public School Facility Improvement Grant Program. This program will be established in the Commonwealth Financing Authority to provide grants to school districts and career and technical education centers for upgrading facilities. The $100 million in the General Appropriation bill for Level Up will be transferred to this program.
Environmental Repairs Program. The Fiscal Code transfers $75 million in unallocated appropriated funds to the Environmental Repairs Program established in the School Code.
Indigent Defense. The Fiscal Code establishes an indigent advisory committee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. This will allow the $7.5 million in the General Appropriations bill to be spent on indigent defense. Pennsylvania has long been one of the few states that does not provide state funds to protect the constitutional right to an attorney.
WHAT REMAINS UNDONE
Earlier this week, our new advocacy campaign Pennsylvanians Together held an event with Santa Claus pointing to 13 pieces of legislation that the House had passed but that had not passed, or even been considered, by the Senate. You can find that list here.
Unfortunately, of the great pieces of legislation on that list, only the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit is found in the bills that have, or will be, passed today. So, still stalled are important pieces of legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15, cut taxes for working families, provide additional funding for the Whole-Home Repairs Program, reform the Corporate Net Income Tax, provide a shield for abortion providers and those from other states coming to Pennsylvania seeking an abortion, open a window for survivors of sexual abuse to sue their abusers, enact two gun safety laws, protect public workers from dangerous work conditions, allow workers who are not working due to labor-management disputes to receive unemployment insurance, create a cost of living increase for retired teachers and public servants, and extend Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law to LGBTQ+ people.