Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks with reporters on Thursday, July 6, 2023 (Commonwealth Media Services).
Gov. Josh Shapiro rejected an allegation from Senate Republican lawmakers that he had reneged on a deal to support a private school voucher program when he announced Wednesday that he would veto $100 million in funding for the plan to avoid a protracted budget impasse.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Shapiro said he supported the program, which would help low-income families pay for private school tuition using state tax dollars.
But it was clear that House Democrats would not pass the Republican-controlled Senate’s $45.5 billion version of the budget with voucher funding unless GOP leaders agreed to advance more of the lower chamber’s priorities.
Shapiro said House Democrats have passed several important bills including statute of limitation reforms for child sexual abuse victims, the Fairness Act, two gun safety bills and a minimum wage increase tied to inflation. All are stuck in the Senate.
House Democrats, meanwhile, quickly passed Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward’s bill to provide free breast cancer screening. Shapiro described the Westmoreland County Republican’s legislation as “seemingly one important bill” to Senate Republicans, which he signed.
“We worked hard to develop a budget package that could win support of both chambers,” Shapiro said at a news conference in the Governor’s Reception Room.
Shapiro said he made clear in private conversations with Senate and House leaders and in his public statements that there was no deal.
“Rather than closing a deal that was within reach with House Democrats, instead, [Senate Republicans] chose to send the state House a budget that was not agreed upon by all three parties,” Shapiro said.
Senate Republicans, who control the upper chamber, said the proposal they approved reflected a “give-and-take” negotiation process, vowing to stand behind Shapiro if he continued pushing for the vouchers despite opposition from legislative Democrats.
But now, GOP leaders — Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and Appropriations Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster — said the governor “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached, leaving tens of thousands of children across Pennsylvania in failing schools.”
“The truth is there was a deal, regardless of what Gov. Shapiro says publicly, and he knows there was a deal,” Ward said in a statement on Thursday. “Senate Republicans worked in good faith with Gov. Shapiro for nearly two months, making concessions and giving him all the goodies he wanted with his promise to work with his party and bring PASS scholarships across the finish line.”
The Senate, which must reconvene before Shapiro can sign the budget, is not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until mid-September.
To avoid a lengthy delay in funding for programs in the budget, Shapiro said he promised to use his line-item veto power to eliminate the voucher program funding to make the budget acceptable to House Democrats.
“I am unwilling to engage in the small ball, which for so long has stymied progress in this building, when there was a chance to adopt a budget that makes historic investments in key priorities of both parties and one that is fiscally responsible,” Shapiro said.
The House passed the budget Wednesday night with a bipartisan 117-86 vote five days after the constitutional June 30 deadline.
It includes a $1 billion increase in K-12 education funding, $86 million for economic and community development, $16 million to increase the size of the state police force, more than $165.7 million for mental health and wellness, and nearly $40 million in funding for investments in Pennsylvania agriculture.
During the final month of budget negotiations, House Democrats were critical of Senate Republicans for failing to respond to the proposal the House first passed on June 5.
The Senate ultimately passed its version of the budget late on June 30, the same day as the House Rules Committee killed a separate bill authorizing the state Education Department to move ahead with the voucher program, dubbed the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success scholarship program.
Jennifer Selber, the administration’s general counsel, said in a letter to House Democrats that without the authorizing legislation called a code bill, the voucher program would stall and the funding would “sit idle in a treasury account.”
In debate over the budget on Wednesday, Rep. Seth Grove, of York County, who is the ranking Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee, said that a number of other Democratic priorities faced a similar fate because the House had failed to pass legislation to authorize them.
Asked about Grove’s observation, Shapiro said the priority should be for both parties to come together to pass the necessary code bills.
House Democratic spokesperson Chris Fetterman said Thursday that staff are working on language for the code bills and moving toward a resolution that would pass in both chambers and be signed by Shapiro.
Fetterman added that the programs Grove mentioned, including money to help counties pay for public defenders and the Whole Home Repair Program to assist low-income homeowners, already exist or laws exist that could be used to implement them.
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