PHILADELPHIA — In the span of a week, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro managed to agitate everybody.
His Democratic allies and labor supporters initially felt burned by his pursuit of a private-school voucher program. When he agreed to veto it, top Republicans cried foul.
The budget controversy feels like a rare misstep for Shapiro, who just two weeks ago was nationally lauded for successfully reopening I-95 ahead of schedule after a bridge collapse.
Since Shapiro took office in January, the press has cast him as a literal and political bridge-builder. But the current budget standoff shows the reality of politically divided Pennsylvania — and marks the end of the honeymoon phase between Harrisburg Republicans and Shapiro, a master communicator, who has worked to cultivate a bipartisan image.
“He miscalculated, and he angered both sides,” Muhlenberg pollster Chris Borick said. “The reality is, if you’re trying to play this one both ways, it’s hard to do.”
It’s unclear if it will have a lasting impact. If the state budget becomes law without noticeable delay, it’s unlikely to dent Shapiro’s popularity. His predecessor, Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, under a Republican-controlled General Assembly, didn’t see a budget passed for the better part of a year when he first took office. He was still easily reelected for a second term.
As for legislators in the statehouse — Democrats and public education advocates ultimately got what they wanted, though hurt feelings may linger. Republicans, meanwhile, say their trust has been broken — and that could affect Shapiro’s ability to get things done in the divided chamber.
“How do we move forward and negotiate with him and trust him?” Senate Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R., Westmoreland, asked The Inquirer on Friday. “I don’t know how we do it. He negotiated in bad faith. A handshake didn’t mean anything.”
Shapiro said in a news conference last week that it was Senate Republicans who misstepped when they assumed he was responsible to get House Democrats on board with the budget he had negotiated. And he said he was clear, in public and in private, that the deal wasn’t final until House Democrats signed on.
“(Senate Republicans) made a unilateral decision to send this bill over to the House,” Shapiro said. “They may not like how this process played out, but it is the process that they put into effect because of their inability to close the deal with the House Democrats.”
Ward said Friday she and Shapiro have not spoken since he announced he’d veto the controversial school-choice program. She has no plans to call the Senate back into session before Sept. 18, its next scheduled day.
“I need a cooldown period,” she said. “I’m not prepared to have that in-depth conversation with him at this point. It will eventually come because we need to move forward.”
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R., Indiana, said last week in a statement he is dedicated to restoring trust in the budget process. House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D., Montgomery, told reporters Friday that leaders are entering a “reset” period and plan to restart negotiations soon.
A spokesperson for Shapiro said he’s had “productive conversations” with Pittman and Bradford throughout the budget process.
“As he always has, the Governor will continue working to bring Republicans and Democrats together in order to deliver real results for all Pennsylvanians,” said Manuel Bonder, Shapiro’s press secretary, in a statement.
In the meantime, Ward said she’s working with other top Senate GOP leaders to attempt a workaround using code bills — the instructions for how the state spends its state budget — to try and slim down the budget, she said. This could mean some of Shapiro’s new budget initiatives, such as $7.5 million for Pennsylvania public defenders’ offices, might not happen after all.
While Shapiro has characterized the stalemate as something the two chambers need to work out, Ward said that’s revisionist history. To her, Shapiro portrayed himself as the negotiator for House Democrats. Ward went from tweeting his praises to posting that she missed Wolf.
“I would think as a governor, you would have the juice to get your party on board on one of your priorities,” Ward told The Inquirer, “if it’s truly a priority.”
Shapiro had gone on Fox News to talk about his support for vouchers, pleasing Republicans who endorse them and irking some Democrats who fiercely back public education.
In the end, House Democrats convinced Shapiro to line-item veto the controversial school voucher program. Shapiro said he’d do so to avoid a lengthy budget holdup. However, Pennsylvania is at an impasse anyway, at least until the main spending bill and at least one of the omnibus code bills are signed by the governor.
His attempt to change course once the stalemate set in made political sense, even if it made him some GOP foes, said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.
“If the narrative is ‘Republicans are holding up the budget,’ that’s not a bad narrative for the Democrats,” Dagnes said. “If it’s that Shapiro screwed over his own party and they’re not supporting him, that’s much worse.”
The budget was a test for House Democrats on whether they could hold the line on issues they say they care about most, like public education, said State Rep. Rick Krajewski, D., Philadelphia, who is a leader of the House’s new progressive caucus.
While he said he understands Shapiro’s stance on vouchers, the position of many Democrats was “that we can’t support a budget that is going to take tax dollars from our public schools and put them toward private interests.”
State Rep. Peter Schweyer, D., Lehigh, who chairs the House Education Committee, said Shapiro’s willingness to veto a program he helped create shows his strength as a leader.
“He was willing to give up what was a priority to him,” Schweyer said. “That’s not easy for any elected official. … Candidly, he deserves a lot of credit for that.”
The school voucher issue isn’t going away for Shapiro anytime soon. Shapiro reiterated last week his support of a voucher program, and Senate Republicans and school-choice advocates are still pressuring him not to veto the proposed program. The House promised to host joint hearings in the coming months about creating a voucher program or expanding existing tax credit programs that sponsor students to attend private schools.
Democrats and Republicans have been cautious about publicly criticizing Shapiro, whose political clout has soared since his commanding November win and his accolades for rebuilding I-95. Leaders from both parties said they were hopeful that he would follow up with the moderate pragmatism he promised on the campaign trail.
“I think nobody wants to speak badly about him because he’s really good,” Dagnes said. “This is a guy who’s absolutely headed toward the White House. Who knows if he’s gonna get there or not? It might be smart to not underestimate him and also to show you can play well with him.”
Democrats have a one-seat majority in the House and Republicans maintain a strong advantage in the state Senate, so Shapiro’s attempts at deal-making will likely be on display repeatedly.
“How does he toggle now?” Borick asked. “Does he look to find other ways to appease more moderate Republicans on other issues and once again risk angering some Democratic constituencies?”