The Pennsylvania budget remains unfinished, while Pennsylvania House lawmakers remain on vacation (in recess) until the end of September.
While it’s up to Speaker Joanna McClinton to call the House back into session (and she’s unlikely to do so until a special election fills the currently vacant seat), she’s been sidelined from negotiations with the Senate.
Instead, House Majority Leader Matt Bradford has assumed the lead role in budget negotiations with the Senate. Unfortunately, his intransigence and ineptitude have left the commonwealth with an incomplete budget and Democrats without any progress on their legislative priorities.
To be fair to Bradford, Democrats haven’t held the majority in a dozen years, so he has never been part of budget negotiations before. Still, his seeming naivety as to how politics works is surprising.
While Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a spending bill (the “general appropriations bill”), it is only a portion of the overall state budget. The state legislature still hasn’t addressed the revenue side of the ledger, and several new programs — totaling almost $1 billion in spending — require authorization language before the administration can release the funds. This funding includes major priorities for House Democrats.
Two months into the fiscal year, the Pennsylvania House has yet to pass a fiscal code, or the legislation enabling all these programs. Some lawmakers are frustrated that Shapiro “didn’t share” the need for additional legislation and the possibility of funding sequestration without it.
Likewise, funding for Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Lincoln University hasn’t passed. While converting those institutional appropriations into grants to students would be good policy, that’s not something House Democrats have entertained. They’ve merely failed to produce a deal that can pass.
These numbers represent the least productive legislative session following a gubernatorial election in more than 50 years. Previous legislatures enacted, on average, 86 bills in the first six months of an administration.
Furthermore, the House has barely been in session to do the people’s business. This year’s 45 scheduled voting session days represent the fewest of any House session since 1964.
Senate Republicans have agreed to and passed, as part of the general appropriations bill, funding for several Democratic priorities, including the Level Up program for certain public schools, the Whole-Home Repairs program, student-teacher stipends, the Historically Disadvantaged Businesses program, and a $600 million increase in basic education funding for public schools.
In return, Bradford has seemingly agreed to nothing. He either doesn’t know how to negotiate or is unwilling to deal with his Senate counterparts.
Instead, he’s preventing holding a floor vote on a fiscal code in a hissy fit over one initiative: the Lifeline Scholarship Program, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Program.
Bradford’s refusal threatens not only Lifeline Scholarships/PASS, designed to provide $100 million in scholarships for our most needy students trapped in the bottom 15 percent of underperforming schools but also funding for all the programs that still need authorizing legislation.
And Bradford’s position is getting more and more lonely.
Shapiro recently reiterated his support for the proposal, calling it “unfinished business” and noting the program doesn’t take any money from public schools. Some legislative Democrats and a key trades union leader have also expressed their support for Lifeline Scholarships/PASS and pleaded with House Democrats to make a deal.
Small wonder, given public opinion. More than 70 percent of voters — including an astounding 81 percent of Democrats — support scholarship programs like Lifeline Scholarships/PASS.
If Bradford would allow this proposal — along with the numerous other budget items that need enabling legislation — to come to a floor vote, it would surely pass.
But Bradford’s failed leadership and unwillingness to broker a deal threaten the entire state budget (including priorities for his caucus) and undermine Shapiro’s bipartisan agenda.
Nathan Benefield is the Senior Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.T