by Lowman S. Henry | June 03, 2024

June is the start of meteorological summer; a time when the kids get out of school, teachers get a well-deserved break, and Americans flock to the ocean and lake shores to relax and reconnect with family and friends.

Under the Capitol dome in Harrisburg the vibe is very different: June is budget month. Governor Josh Shapiro and lawmakers are required to have the new spending plan in place by June 30th. Although everyone involved is well aware of the deadline, it is frequently missed.

The budget-making process has been underway for months. Governor Shapiro delivered his budget address back in February. Legislators in both the Senate and House have held weeks of budget hearings. A flurry of news releases designed to pander to political bases have been issued, and the battle lines are drawn. The process now moves behind closed doors where the governor and legislative leaders will hash out budget details.

As a result of federal funding supposedly to help states fiscally weather the COVID-19 pandemic Pennsylvania has a hefty budget surplus – it is estimated to be at nearly $14 billion by the end of this month. Oddly, it is more difficult to reach a budget consensus in years when the state has a surplus than when it faces a deficit.

Governor Shapiro and legislative Democrats have put on the table a number of big spending proposals. The danger therein is continuing that higher level of funding in future years after the surplus has been spent. For their part, Republicans want to give taxpayers some relief. The GOP-controlled Senate actually got bi-partisan support for reducing the state’s Personal Income Tax (PIT), which the Commonwealth Foundation estimates will leave about $900 additional dollars in the average family’s wallet. State Representative Rob Mercuri (R-Allegheny) has proposed giving taxpayers a $1,000.00 “Taxpayer Dividend” rebate check.

While these larger issues are being hashed out it may once again be a comparatively small budget item that grinds the process to a halt. Last year – Governor Shapiro’s first budget – all appeared to be progressing smoothly and there was an air of cooperation between him and Senate Republican leaders. The Senate GOP agreed to more spending than they wanted, the governor in turn agreed to the Senate’s top priority: the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) also known as Lifeline Scholarships.

According to the Commonwealth Foundation the program would offer an Education Opportunity Account (EOA) to any student assigned to a school ranked in the bottom 15 percent of performance. In other words it would give the poorest students in the worst schools a literal educational “lifeline” by providing the funding needed to attend another school of their choosing.

In a 2023-24 budget of $45.5 billion the PASS Program would cost just $103.7 million, a fraction of the $1.1 billion increase in public school spending contained in that budget.

Powerful special interest groups, led by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) intervened and pressured lawmakers not to approve PASS. House Majority Leader Matt Bradford only agreed to bring the budget to the floor for a vote after securing a commitment from Shapiro to line item veto the program. Shapiro agreed, broke his deal with Senate Republicans, bringing the era of good feelings to an abrupt end. The result was an extended budget crisis and the consignment of thousands of school children to another year of sub-standard education.

Once again this year Senate Republicans are seeking to fund the PASS program. But the Left is dug in. The degree to which they are willing to fight against providing educational opportunities to economically disadvantaged children was on full display recently when Erin McClelland, the Democratic nominee for State Treasurer, worshipped at the altar of the PSEA pledging to “fight” school vouchers by refusing to sign any checks for that purpose unless ordered to by the state Supreme Court.

In one of the more forgettable chapters of Pennsylvania political history I was the Republican nominee for State Treasurer in 1992. As such I am well acquainted with the powers and duties of that office and the State Treasurer has no power to withhold payment of funds duly approved by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. In addition to revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the powers and duties of the office for which she is running, McClelland’s statement is just one example of how far the Left is willing to go to trap minority students in under-performing schools.

And so, as folks bask at the shore or enjoy The Great American Getaway here in Penn’s Woods expect budget month to become budget summer. The decisions made in the air conditioned back rooms of the Capitol will determine what remains in our wallets, and whether or not thousands of school children will finally be given the opportunity to succeed.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly American Radio Journal and Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail is [email protected].)

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