With $13 billion in an accumulated surplus and a budget proposal from the governor that only 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 is due today, and no deal is imminent. While House Democrats passed a budget weeks ago, not only is no resolution in sight but it appears that a great deal more work needs to be done to reach one.
First, it seems like 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. And they were all wary of taking bold steps that might come back to haunt them.
House Democrats decided to move first and passed a bolder budget than the one proposed by the Governor, with more funding for education and new funding for the Level Up program and other critical priorities. Then they passed a minimum wage bill that was not perfect but would put PA on a path to $15. Governor Shapiro embraced both plans.
Senate Republicans, however, have been holding back—apparently, for a number of reasons.
First, they don’t seem to understand that Republicans lost the last election: they lost the governor’s race by a landslide. And, they lost the House majority for the first time in over a decade. While Senate Rs 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.
Second, there seems to be a faction among Senate Republicans (there certainly is in the House Republican caucus) that is taking their cues from national Republicans, who seem to think that they can hold any necessary government action—whether it is a state budget or an agreement to avoid default—hostage until they get their way. This is, sadly, a product of the belief among Republican extremists that they are the only legitimate governing party.
Third, Senate Republicans apparently believe that any delay in the budget will be blamed on Governor Shapiro. What they fail to understand is that, even before his effective leadership on the I-95 issue, the governor is in the best possible position to wait—if necessary, for a few weeks or more to reach a budget deal.
Fourth, despite losing in the courts, Republicans have been trying to twist the Commonwealth Court decision, which calls for a new, fair system of funding public schools, into a mandate to radically restructure how we fund our schools by privatizing them. This, together with their willingness to hold the budget hostage to their demands, has led Senate Republicans to make their school choice voucher program, Lifeline Scholarships, a top priority.
And fifth, Governor Shapiro, perhaps inadvertently, encouraged the Senate Republicans by reiterating what he said on the campaign trail—that he was not opposed to Lifeline scholarships provided they did not take away from funding public schools. Senate Republicans took his statement and ran with it despite two problems. First, when schools are so radically underfunded, any money for vouchers takes away critical funds from public schools. And second, it became quickly apparent that the 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 that Democrats will never support. The appearance of a letter signed by anti-government extremists Betsy Devos and Grover Norquist in support of the Lifeline Scholarship program has made that abundantly clear.
Last night, the House Democrats, who have been the most consistent and straightforward players at the table, made it clear that there will be no Lifeline scholarship program adopted this year or 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 are likely to be in the majority for a long time.)
So, we are back to square one. The House has put a fiscally sound budget on the table that makes a strong down payment on meeting the constitutional and moral obligation to fund our schools. They have passed a good minimum wage proposal. They have recognized that they might not get everything they want in a final deal but have told everyone what they want.
It’s time for the Senate Republicans to recognize political reality and come to the table with the House Democrats and Governor Shapiro and strike a deal.