Pennsylvania House passes $34 billion budget proposal without widespread Democratic support

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

With support from most Republicans and some Democrats, the Pennsylvania House passed a $34 billion budget spending plan Tuesday afternoon, 140-62.

The budget, agreed on by House and Senate GOP leadership and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, includes no new taxes and $160 million in additional funding for public education — $40 million less than the governor’s February ask.

Total funding for basic education is now at $6.7 billion, a historic high for the state. But debates over where the funding goes and whether it is enough to prevent rising property taxes remain a heated debate.

“It very nicely aligned with all of our legislative agenda items … since the beginning of the year,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said of the budget.

It includes increased funding for workforce development programs — including farm workers — as well as boosts for certain state technical schools, like Thaddeus Stevens College in Lancaster.

The spending plan, which still awaits action by the Senate, also increased funding to rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters by 10 percent each, matching an earlier push from the General Assembly to aid survivors. 

In total, the fiscal blueprint represents a 1.8 percent increase in spending — including cost overruns in state human services spending — compared to last year. Compared to the last official budget, the $33.997 billion spending plan is closer to a 5 percent bump in expenditures.

The spending plan makes no allocation for the General Assistance program, which provides cash payments to individuals with disabilities and in addiction treatment. The budget also does not assume an increase in the minimum wage, a source of much angst during the multi-hour debate.

Currently, the state minimum wage is $7.25, the federal minimum, and it hasn’t been increased in a decade. The Independent Fiscal Office, the state fiscal watchdog, projected a $12 increase would increase the wages of 2 million workers, cost 33,000 jobs, and lead to an additional $40 million in tax revenue.

Democrats frequently took to the floor and started legislative maneuvers to keep a hike — one that Wolf himself had called for in his budget address in that very chamber in February — on the agenda. Budget hearings also frequently turned into debates over the minimum wage.

However, Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, gaveled down lawmakers when they tried to turn the conversation to a wage increase.

Republicans were also quick to point out that the budget boosted or maintained funding for many social programs even without a tax increase. Wolf himself staked out no new taxes in his budget address.

After the debate, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Turzai “made a mistake” by selectively enforcing the House rules to close off conversations around an increase. A spokesperson for Turzai did not reply to a request for comment by press time. 

Wolf has backed the budget proposal. A spokesperson for the administration said Monday that it met the governor’s objectives to invest “in all levels of education, build on our progress to have the nation’s strongest workforce and help children and their families at early periods of development, while making large deposits in the Rainy Day Fund.”

But the lack of a wage increase clearly turned off many Democrats — nearly 60 percent voted against the budget. Those who voted for it were often members of leadership, or from the western half of the state.

“There are some very, very good things in the budget,” Dermody, who voted yes, said of his vote.

Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia and another yes, added that “I am a leader, and that’s why I took the vote I took.”

In addition to the minimum wage and General Assistance, other provisions — such as a lack of funding for census outreach and controversial shifts in environmental funding — led to widespread unrest in the Democratic ranks.

Their opposition led to heated internal discussions Monday night, where Democrats from across the state and spectrum expressed frustration with the proposed budget. From urban Pittsburgh to the Philly suburbs, many Democrats — especially first-year lawmakers — felt the budget was a poor deal that didn’t reflect the values they ran and won their elections on.

Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester, told the Capital-Star that she didn’t “care if [leaders] shove in six good things” to a subsequent deal. If it was without a minimum wage increase or environmental funding, “it’s not enough.”

Dermody said the Democratic nays made “it known to everyone that’s here and the people of Pennsylvania that we have a caucus that cares very deeply about these very important issues, and they are going to vote their conscience and their district.”

The lack of action on minimum wage also bothered state activists, like John Meyerson — a former labor activist who now leads the Raise the Wage PA. 

The coalition of some 80 labor, community, and faith organizations has one main goal — a $15 minimum wage for all workers.

Meyerson told the Capital-Star that, even as he organized events through the last few weeks, he saw an opportunity to increase the wage “slip away.”

He blamed intransigent House Republicans for keeping the issue off the negotiating table, but added that Wolf “was in a stronger position than he seems to think he was in” to force the issue after winning a landslide reelection.

Now, his eyes — and the eyes of many in the General Assembly — are turning to the fall for a shot at the wage increase.

“We’re not going away,” Meyerson said. “And we are going to continue to organize and agitate through the remainder of the week and the summer” to pass a wage increase. 

“Delay is not defeat,” he added.

The budget now moves to the Senate, where leadership said it’s expected to pass Thursday.

Negotiations continue on the budget-enabling code bills, which serve as instruction manuals for the spending plan.

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