Pa. budget on its way to Gov. Wolf after education bill dispute temporarily derails process

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Updated, 11:30 a.m.: Crisis averted.

The state House voted 160-39 on Friday to approve a piece of budget-enabling education legislation that is key to finishing the plan.

Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star before the vote that Democratic bills on career and technical education would be amended into another piece of legislation. He said he’s received assurances the Senate will pass that legislation this fall.

That’s what happened on the House floor Friday, as both Democrats and Republicans spoke in favor of the workforce development plan.

After finishing other budget-related business with no controversy, the House adjourned for summer recess. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the budget legislation today.

Original story

Some last-minute additions — and surprising missing pieces — derailed final approval of the state budget late Thursday night.

The House balked at passing one final part of the budget in a 77-121 vote: the school code, an omnibus bill of that directs how the state’s $6.7 billion education budget will be spent.

All but one Democrat voted with 31 Republicans to vote the legislation down. It was a surprise end to what seemed a triumphant march to an early signing of the the state’s $34 billion budget, which ran into limited hiccups — amid some fiery debate — over the past week.

The opposition was surprising, considering the provisions in the school code bill. From a safe harbor rule to encourage underage college students out drinking to report sexual violence to a $25 million expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, there seemed to be something to keep everybody happy.

But the plan started to fall apart around 7:30 p.m.. Among House Republicans, at issue was a proposal to expand the compulsory school age from the current range of age eight to 17 to age six to 18.

More socially conservative Republicans saw the proposal as taking away the rights of parents to decide what’s best for their kids.

Pennsylvania is one of 14 states that has a compulsory attendance age above 6 years old, and is tied with Washington state for the oldest.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed lowering the age as part of his initial budget pitch. After inconclusive House hearings, the measure was added by the Senate. Some House Republicans said the proposal caught them unprepared, and were critical of how the measure ended up for a vote.

“I’m just worried that their concerns could have been easily fixed and the concerns could have been taken care of,” House Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, said of the defections.

He thought the bill should have an exemption for some parents who feel their kids aren’t ready to go to school at age 6.

While Sonney said he had concerns with the measure, they “were not enough to stop” the bill and he voted yes.

Before the final vote, Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, appeared in last-minute committee meeting to implore lawmakers to pass the bill. Citing increases for teachers’ pensions and special education funding, Turzai said that “we do not get it done if we do not pass this [education] code bill.”

“And if we want to be here all summer, because we don’t want to get an ed code bill done, that’s been negotiated and already passed by the Senate, then I guess we can just vote no,” Turzai said.

And vote no they did.

The Republican dissenters were joined by nearly every Democrat. At the same meeting were Turzai asked for consensus, Democrats raised concerns that some legislation sponsored by their colleagues on career and technical education legislation hadn’t made it into the budget deal.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said their disapproval was about the broken commitment from House Republicans to make sure their language was included.

“We cared about people keeping their deals,” Dermody said. “We’re going to work together with [Republicans] and we’re coming back in at 9 o’clock.”

The bills included an inventory of workforce development programs in the state and creating an online career resource center among other proposals.

Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, acknowledged divisions within the caucus but laid blame on the Democrats for the snafu.

“This was an agreed to bill with the administration, with their own leadership, then they all voted against it,” Straub said.

He also questioned if there was ever a deal to have the Democrat-backed measures in the bill in the first place.

Negotiations between the Senate and House over the concerns are set to restart Friday morning. A measure to reconsider the bill was already filed by the Democrats.

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