The clock is ticking for lawmakers, Wolf to agree on 2022-23 budget. What to know so far
Lawmakers have until midnight on Thursday to pass a spending plan that allocates billions of dollars to fund education, economic growth, community development, and human services
(Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
(*This story was updated at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 6/28/22, to include comment from Greg Thall, Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget secretary.)
The clock is ticking for Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to agree on the 2022-23 state budget plan as they continue talks behind closed doors this week.
Lawmakers have until midnight on June 30 to pass a spending plan that allocates billions of dollars to fund education, economic growth, community development, and human services.
Among the few budget-related actions taken in public was a vote Monday by House Republicans resurrecting a long-running criticism of the University of Pittsburgh for conducting fetal tissue research and making funding for state-related universities contingent on not performing such experimentation.
Lawmakers from Allegheny County spoke in opposition to the amendment to the state-related university appropriations bill, which passed with a 108-92 vote, saying it would force Pitt to choose between halting important medical research or upending the educations of thousands of students who rely on the money for in-state tuition discounts.
“What happened yesterday … is a disaster for every middle-class family that is looking to support their children’s education goals,” House Democratic Caucus Chairperson Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, said Tuesday.
Wolf, who is seeking approval of his eighth and final budget before leaving office in January 2023, has proposed new funding for education, investments in health services, and support for businesses and families still struggling to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pennsylvania also has access to roughly $2.2 billion in federal pandemic funds allocated as part of the federal American Rescue Plan. Wolf has proposed using the federal money to support families with property tax rebates, child care subsidies, small business aid, and conservation projects. Any federal spending would be on top of new programs established in the budget.
After the Senate canceled its scheduled session day on Monday, Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, told reporters in an email that lawmakers have not made headway with Wolf on the spending plan.
Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, refuted the claim in an email to the Capital-Star, saying: “The governor and staff were fully engaged throughout the weekend, and discussions will continue.”
As of Tuesday morning, with the House and Senate back in session, Wright said there were no updates on negotiations. Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House majority leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, has said only that Republicans are working to craft a budget that meets the state’s needs while maintaining a margin of fiscal safety for changing economic conditions.
“Negotiations are going as they normally go,” Greg Thall, Wolf’s budget secretary, told the Capital-Star.
The hangup, Thall added, is what to spend money on — citing school funding, the gas tax holiday, and opportunity zones, which incentivize economic development in distressed areas.
“Up until this point, we’ve hit some resistance with those points, but I am confident that we can get an agreement together,” he said.
Wolf campaigned on education reform and staked his legacy on increasing education funding ahead of last year’s budget. His office did not specify where negotiations have reached a standstill, but increased K-12 education is likely involved.
In particular, Wolf’s final spending proposal calls for $1.55 billion in new education funding. Of that increase, $1.25 billion would go to the Fair Funding Formula, which decides school funding, $300 million for the Level Up initiative, which prioritizes Pennsylvania’s poorest districts, and $200 million for special education.
A person familiar with the education budget discussions said the Republican proposal was significantly less, cutting Wolf’s allocations by more than half while providing $100 million each for school security upgrades and in-school mental health services.
The proposal, just shy of $1 billion, would nonetheless include a historic increase over last year’s $400 million for basic education.
Funding for county mental health and drug and alcohol programs, still reeling from a massive cut during former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, has also been a point of discussion, Jack Phillips, director of government affairs for the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association, told the Capital-Star.
Wolf’s proposal was to restore funding by 30 percent to $36 million. Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who proposed a $100 million mental health care package, said if Republicans agree to Wolf’s number “I would call it a good day.”
Phillips and Schlossberg said they’re hopeful that Republican leaders understand that mental health needs are disproportionately larger in the rural districts they represent.
“I see recognition based on what they’re saying, and I hope that the money follows their words,” Schlossberg said.
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