HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday backed off his insistence on money for a new private-school funding program after it became a sticking point in a budget stalemate between Pennsylvania’s politically divided Legislature.
Shapiro’s shift in position came as state government plowed through its fifth day without full spending authority, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives prepared to respond to a budget deal between Shapiro and Republicans who control the state Senate.
The holdup in the politically divided Legislature is primarily over education spending — including Shapiro’s support for $100 million for a new program for private and religious schools that Republicans also support.
But that first-ever “voucher” program is opposed by Democrats, teachers’ unions and school boards. Shapiro has remained out of sight in the Capitol, but in a statement said he would issue a line-item veto of the $100 million program should the House otherwise pass the Senate’s $45 billion spending plan.
Shapiro said he was disappointed, but did not want to plunge the state into a “painful, protracted budget impasse.”
Senate Republicans pushed the $100 million program for private and religious schools program in their negotiations, finding an ally in Shapiro. But Shapiro’s insistence on including the program in the budget surprised lawmakers, sowed intraparty tension with his fellow Democrats and threw a late curveball into budget negotiations.
House Democrats, in response, demanded more in aid for public schools that Senate Republicans are thus far unwilling to meet and, last week, voted down the Senate’s separate legislation to create the voucher program.
Democrats say that sending more taxpayer money to private and religious schools makes no sense just months after a state judge ruled in a landmark case that Pennsylvania’s system of school funding is violating the rights of children in poorer school districts.
Rep. Tarik Khan, D-Philadelphia, said the court ruling makes it clear that boosting money for public schools — not private schools — must be a priority for lawmakers to try to wipe out disparities.
“Taking kids out of public schools and diverting resources that otherwise would have gone (to public schools) doesn’t make sense,” Khan said. “It doesn’t make sense to a lot of my fellow legislators.”
Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, a Democrat from Lancaster County, said the Senate’s budget plan “undercut several key Pennsylvania values” in funding education. His constituents want more money for education, special education and mental health services in schools, he said.
“They didn’t ask for vouchers,” Smith-Wade-El said.
For their part, Republicans have described how closely they worked with Shapiro on a budget plan and how they met every request he made during budget negotiations, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in spending that Shapiro sought to sell the deal to House Democrats.
That deal also included another $150 million for a separate tax-credit program that largely benefits private schools.
The Senate passed the main budget bill Friday. The plan represents a 5% increase from last year’s approved budget. However, some of it remains in limbo, including about $600 million in aid for Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh that has been held up by a House Republican bloc.
The total spending figure would be several hundred million less than what Shapiro proposed in March and about $1.7 billion less than what the Democratic-controlled House passed in early June. It also carries significantly less for public schools than what House Democrats sought.
The plan does not increase sales or income taxes — the state’s two main sources of income — but, to balance, the plan would require about $1 billion from reserves, leaving about $13 billion in reserve.