With $13 billion in accumulated surplus and a budget from the governor that proposed modest additions to state spending on policies that have broad support, one would expect that making a budget deal would be easy.
Yet the budget deadline came and went.
House Democrats passed a budget four weeks ago with more funding for a number of programs, including education, where they added to basic education funding and special education funding, and added the popular Level Up program back into the budget. They then passed a minimum wage bill that was not perfect but would put Pennsylvania on a path to $15. Governor Shapiro embraced both plans.
Senate Republicans passed a profoundly flawed budget, at the last minute, that rejected most of the House plan. Its worst element, however, was the inclusion of a $100 million down payment on a radical plan, sponsored by extremist billionaires like Betsy Devos and Jeffrey Yass, to destroy our public school system. Then they left town.
The House Democrats had already made clear that there will be no voucher program adopted this year or for as long as they are in the House majority. (And given that their stance on all the critical issues is totally aligned with the majority in public polls, they may well be in the majority for a long time.)
So, we’re back to square one.
How did we get here?
First, negotiations started later than usual. There were new political circumstances: a Democratic House majority that did not really take power until the special elections in March, a new governor, and new leadership in the Senate. The new people, with power in their hands, had to take time to build relationships, internally and externally, and learn the ropes of the budget process.
Second, in an extraordinary display of political chutzpah, having lost the education funding case in court, the Republicans tried to twist the decision—which calls for a new, fair system of funding public schools—into a mandate to radically restructure our education system by privatizing schools.
Third, the Republicans not only misread the opinion of the courts but may have misread Governor Shapiro as well. The governor signaled his willingness to support a modest Lifeline scholarship program during his campaign and has continued to do so ever since. However, his support was contingent on funding public schools fully and fairly. When public schools are so radically underfunded, any allotment of money for vouchers takes away critical funds from these schools. And the Senate Republican budget does far less than the House Democratic budget. While the Governor has not been as clear as we’d like, we hope his unwillingness to embrace the Senate budget indicates that he’s having second thoughts about the school voucher plan. As he thinks about his political future, the Governor must be concerned that the endorsement of the Senate plan by anti-government extremists Betsy Devos and Grover Norquist reveals that Republicans see Lifeline scholarships not as a supplement to public schools, but as a foot in the door for a radical restructuring of education funding in Pennsylvania.
Fourth, it appears that many Republicans don’t understand that they lost the last election: in fact, their gubernatorial candidate lost in a landslide. They lost the House majority for the first time in over a decade. While Senate Republicans did not lose seats—mostly because that chamber remains more gerrymandered than the House—the political landscape has shifted. But Republican expectations have not shifted with them.
The Republicans can legitimately claim a role in setting funding levels in the budget. But there seems to be a faction among Senate Republicans that is taking its cues from national Republicans, who think they can hold hostage any necessary government action—whether it is a state budget or an agreement to avoid default—until they get their way, no matter how radical their proposals are. This is, sadly, a product of the belief among Republican extremists that theirs is the only legitimate governing party. That, however, is not the view of most Pennsylvanians. Democrats here in Pennsylvania are not going to embrace extremist, radical ideas in the budget process any more than President Biden allowed it in Washington.
And fifth, Senate Republicans apparently believe that any delay in the budget will be blamed on Governor Shapiro. They fail to understand that, even before his effective leadership in managing the recent I-95 repair, the governor is widely admired and is in the best possible position to wait for them to accept political reality. And the Governor surely understands that the radical intent of the Lifeline program is deeply unpopular with Democrats, not just in Pennsylvania but around the country.
The House Democrats have accepted political reality. They have enacted many of their proposals (which are, frankly, progressive) but have done so in ways that have not pushed the envelope; and on many issues, they have won Republican support. When the Senate Republicans recognize political reality as well, they will be able to strike a budget deal with the House Democrats and Governor Shapiro.