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Budget, legislature could test Shapiro

Jun 01, 2023Jun 01, 2023

Jun 6, 2023

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state lawmakers returned to session Monday for a weekslong slog to the budget deadline, as House Democrats advanced a spending plan that could test whether Gov. Josh Shapiro can manage a politically divided Legislature in his freshman year.

It could also set the tone for how the Democratic governor will boost his agenda while balancing the demands of an entrenched Senate Republican majority with those of a one-vote House Democratic majority that took power this year.

Within hours, House Democrats unveiled and passed a spending plan that goes well beyond what Shapiro requested for the year starting July 1, insisting on more money for public schools and saying strong recent tax collections can support it.

It passed on a party-line vote, 102-101, on Monday evening.

During floor debate, House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, called it "modest in its reach, but balanced and affordable." House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, warned that it will lead to "financial calamity."

It is likely to get a chilly reception in the Republican-controlled Senate, however. There, GOP leaders had already been skeptical of Shapiro's more modest spending proposal, citing forecasts of slowing tax collections, budget deficits and possibly a recession.

But a landmark court decision — and some $13 billion in state reserves — have emboldened Democratic lawmakers to demand far more money for public schools out of this year's spending plan to fix decades of what they view as a debilitating and discriminatory funding scheme.

"That has to be a central theme in whatever we do on June 30," said Sen. Vince Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

The House Democratic plan would increase spending by almost $1.4 billion above Shapiro's proposal, about half of it for public schools.

All told, it would boost spending for the 2023-24 fiscal year through the state's main bank account to $45 billion, or a 5% increase over this year's approved budget. The increase would be 8% when including an additional $1.3 billion in new proposed spending through off-budget accounts.

The plan envisions no increases in income or sales taxes, the state's two main revenue sources, and most of the new money in it would go to education, health care and social services. Like Shapiro's plan, it relies on roughly $2 billion in reserves to balance.

For his part, Shapiro has sought to manage Democrats’ expectations, suggesting that he will come up with a farther-reaching school funding increase next year.

In his budget plan in March, Shapiro proposed roughly $1 billion in new money for public schools, including grants for mental health needs, security improvements and removing environmental hazards.

However, many Democrats said it did not go far enough and public school advocates say the poorest school districts should get billions of dollars more to live up to the spirit of the court decision.

In a statement Monday, Shapiro praised House Democrats "for taking this important step forward and adding to our shared priorities."

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