HARRISBURG – The state Senate sent Gov. Tom Wolf a $34 billion state budget Thursday night, but lawmakers in the state House will return to the Capitol on Friday to take up a budget measure dealing with school law.
In a late Thursday vote, the House refused to concur on changes made by the state Senate. Democrats balked at supporting the measure, and a smaller group of Republicans refused to back it over changes to the state’s required school age. The measure would have required students to enroll at age 6 and remain in school until 18. Current law uses 8 and 17 as the upper and lower age requirements.
Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, had urged the members to back the school plan despite the concerns about the changes made by the Senate. But by a 121-77, House members refused to agree to the school law plan.
Lawmakers were huddling behind closed doors late Thursday after the session. Wolf put off signing the overall budget bill Thursday night in light of the House vote, J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf said.
The state House approved the overall spending plan earlier this week.
The plan would increase basic education funding for schools by $160 million and increases funding for special education by $50 million. The plan also would allow for another $25 million in tax credits for donors who give to scholarship programs that cover tuition for private schools. Wolf vetoed a bill that would have boosted that tax credit program by $100 million.
The budget would provide schools with another $60 million to boost security in the wake of ongoing concerns over safety in light of shooting incidents across the country.
But in debate before rejecting the school bill, lawmakers raised concerns about a move to change the ages of compulsory attendance, as well as the career and technical education changes.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said that Republicans knew that some members of that caucus would refuse to support the school plan over the school age change. They expected that some Democrats would vote for the measure, but only one state Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, did.
Democrats are upset because four bills authored by Democrats that are intended to promote career and technical education weren’t included in the school code, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer.
In addition to calling for the now stalled boost in school spending, the overall proposal also calls for the state to deposit at least $250 million in its Rainy Day Fund, a move that had been a priority of Wolf and legislative leaders.
Republicans said the measure doesn’t raise taxes, its fiscally responsible, and it provides more state dollars for schools and funds other important programs – including added funds to cover the cost to counties to investigate child abuse, along with new funding for domestic violence and rape crisis shelters.
It doesn’t include a number of controversial proposals, including a proposed fee on communities without police to cover the cost of state police protection or a minimum wage hike.
Wolf had called for an increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour in his February budget proposal.
Democrats, including state Sen. Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, criticized the failure to include a minimum wage increase in the plan.
“People are choosing between food on the table, medicine, rent,” Tartaglione said. “They need this. Every state bordering Pennsylvania has raised the minimum wage. Some have raised it twice. Now is the time to do it.”
State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, said that the last time the state increased the minimum wage, it did so as a standalone measure instead of as part of the state budget.
As a result, the debate over whether the minimum wage should be increased in the fall session or some other time, he said.
Gordner said the increased funding for abuse victims is important. The budget will provide an addition $34 million to help counties investigate child protection cases. It’s a 2.8 percent increase.
“We should be proud of that,” he said.
The spending plan also provides 10 percent increases for domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.
“By and large on this particular budget, there’s a lot to like,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre. “What we tried to do is fund what works.”
The budget calls for $12.8 billion in education funding, the largest-ever state investment in Pennsylvania’s schools. Additionally, the General Assembly renewed $60 million in grant funding to protect students and teachers from violence in schools.
“We must give our kids all the tools and resources they need to succeed,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, who serves as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “This is a vital investment that brings huge dividends to Pennsylvania.”
Langerholc said the budget also continues the state’s ongoing commitment to protect students and school staff by restoring the governor’s $15 million cut to the Safe Schools program and increasing the Safe School initiative to a total of $11 million.
“We also took the time to add funding and increase funding for programs that are important to the future and the safety of our communities,” said Langerholc. “Funding workforce development and agriculture, as well as increased funding to curb domestic violence are things that I’m particularly proud of.”
He noted the new budget will set aside $300 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which held only $23 million prior to this year’s investment – enough to fund state government for only six hours.
“Taxpayers and families set aside money for tough times, and state government should be following that example,” he said. “We were determined to deliver an on-time, balanced budget that funds core government services with no tax increases.”
Other key changes
Voting reforms: The General Assembly sent Wolf a voting reform package that would eliminate straight party voting, while providing counties with funding to replace voting machines.
Last year, Wolf told counties they needed to replace their voting machines, adding a requirement that all machines provide paper ballots before the 2020 presidential election.
Wolf’s budget proposed providing counties with $15 million a year to help cover that cost. Senate Bill 48 would allow the state to borrow $90 million to help the counties pay as much as 60 percent of the cost of the switch. An additional $14 million is available to counties for this effort from federally directed funds.
Medicaid busing: The budget package includes a provision that would delay a planned state move to use regional brokers to run Medicaid busing programs that are now run by county agencies. The move to the broker-managed system design was included in last year’s budget, but transit agencies objected to the switch.
The new budget package requires the state to complete a six-month analysis examining the full implications of the change.