Pa. state House passes stopgap budget measure in close vote, sending it to Senate

Like in an old western standoff, masked lawmakers stared each down across the half-empty benches of the Pennsylvania House floor Tuesday evening, as the chamber voted on a temporary, $25 billion budget that aims to buy the state time to triage the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The vote was tied, 101-101. While most Republicans had voted yes, eight of their most conservative colleagues were a no — as was every House Democrat

In the balance was a temporary, $25 billion budget that authorized five months’ worth of funding for most state agencies, and 12 months of funding for K-12 and higher education — the result of a deal hammered out between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and GOP leaders in both the House and Senate.

Despite the close call, House Republicans won out Tuesday, and the proposal cleared the lower chamber before heading to a bipartisan welcome in the Senate. 

But the accelerated measure pushes off tough decisions until a lame duck session after the November election, giving lawmakers more time to assess the damage to state revenue collections and to await another round of stimulus cash that many hope may be forthcoming from Congress.

Lawmakers usually pass a state budget by June 30, but the havoc of the pandemic, from two million Pennsylvanians claiming unemployment benefits to thousands of closed businesses, has thrown the state’s rosy budget projections for 2020 into a tailspin. 

2020-2021 budget talks resume with ‘a lot of unknowns’ Wolf says

The temporary spending plan calls for state spending to remain at the same levels authorized in the current budget for the next five months. 

Republicans, such as House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, said passing an unorthodox, short-term plan ahead of schedule “allows us to keep the state operating efficiently now, and responsibly fund all programs in the future.”

But House Democrats said they didn’t see the spending plan until Tuesday, and were unprepared to vote on it the same night. 

House Democratic spokesperson Bill Patton said the budget didn’t fill a hole in lost property tax relief, created by the loss of tax revenue from shuttered casinos. He said a Democratic plan would include hazard pay and protective equipment, but did not provide specifics. 

Some conservative Republicans, such as Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, also wanted to wait a little longer to pass a budget. 

Ryan told the Capital-Star he originally wanted to wait to  pass a budget closer to the end of June, when lawmakers had a clearer idea of how the pandemic would affect state revenue collections.

But the stalemate in the House was broken and the budget was poised passed after a few short but uneasy minutes, when one Republican — Rep. Bud Cook, R-Fayette — changed his vote from no to yes.

Cook could not be located in the Capitol, and did not answer a phone call Tuesday night.

A procedural mistake forced the House to vote again — and the budget passed 103-99, since Ryan changed his vote as well.

As families wait for college financial aid packages and school districts begin to draft budgets for the coming academic year, Ryan told the Capital-Star it was “valuable to give our citizens as much stability as possible” amid the COVID-19 crisis, so he flipped his vote.

The final vote allowed the House to send the budget proposal to the Senate, which is slated to pass it in a series of floor votes this week.

Philadelphia Sen. Vince Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, called the budget a “thoughtful measure” that would “buy us some time as we continue to see how the pandemic will impact us.”

While Hughes encouraged his colleagues to support the legislation, two of his fellow Democrats voted against it, sending it to the full Senate by a vote of 22-2.