In an unusual move that lawmakers say will buy them time to assess the full financial damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania is poised to adopt a nearly $26 billion budget that flat-funds most state programs for five months and public education for a year.
The budget, which does not contain any tax hikes, got the approval of the state Senate in a 44-6 vote Thursday afternoon. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said he worked with legislative leaders to develop the plan and is expected to sign it.
Though it enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the Senate, the budget passed by a thin, party-line margin Tuesday in the House, where conservative Republican lawmakers said they wanted to wait for an additional month of revenue projections.
Democrats who opposed the legislation, meanwhile, said the flat funding for schools would force districts to hike local property taxes or cut programs and staff to cover spending gaps.
Those concerns were echoed Thursday by Democrats in the Senate, where lawmakers debated the bill for just 25 minutes before calling a floor vote.
Sen. Andrew Dinniman, of Chester County, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, was one of the few Democrats who voted against the budget. He said Thursday that the proposed spending plan did not provide enough money for education.
“My concern is that the only way many of these districts will get through this is by raising property tax rates, which is also unacceptable,” Dinniman said. “I would have hoped we could take funding from other areas of the budget and give it to schools.”
Education funding bumps under the Wolf administration have typically far outpaced inflation. But education advocates say the boosts haven’t been enough to cover the rising costs of pensions, special education programs and charter school tuition payments.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers warned earlier this month that COVID-related job losses and market fluctuations could cost Pennsylvania’s school as much as a combined $1 billion in local revenue, or five percent of what they collect annually.
Nonetheless, education advocates expressed relief Thursday that public school would not see any reductions in state aid this year.
But some also urged lawmakers to tap into the $3.9 billion in discretionary funding from the federal CARES Act, which was partially allocated in a separate measure the General Assembly approved Thursday.
“We must promptly find ways to provide additional support to the struggling, underfunded school districts whose students have been hardest hit by this crisis,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said in an emailed statement.
The CARES funding bill lawmakers approved Thursday calls for $150 million of federal aid dollars to go to a school safety grant fund, which will be used this year to help schools buy masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies and invest in mental health programs.
The $2.6 billion measure accounts for just one-third of the state’s discretionary CARES dollars. Senate leaders told reporters Thursday that the remaining $1.3 billion is in a restricted account that lawmakers will dole out in the next few months.
They also said that Congress may change the terms of the aid program in that time, which could let them use the federal dollars to patch holes in the state budget – something that federal law currently forbids.
Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, added that lawmakers could even send more money to schools if Congress approves another federal stimulus package this year.
“The budget we passed today doesn’t preclude us from putting more money [towards] education when we’re back at the table in November,” Hughes said, referring to the month that funding will dry up for most state agencies under the Commonwealth’s proposed budget plan. “We’re not locked out of that option.”