Budget negotiations in Harrisburg appear to have hit a standstill as of this writing. The deadline for enacting an on-time budget ended Friday night without an agreement in place.
Much of the discussion last week centered on a proposal to establish what is known as “lifeline scholarships,” which has since been renamed the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program. PASS scholarships would be made available to help low-income students attend private or parochial schools if they attend a public school ranked in the bottom 15 percent of performance.
The concept emerged as a top priority for Senate Republicans and gained the support of Gov. Josh Shapiro, who stated his support for such vouchers on the campaign trail last year. The governor reiterated his support for the concept during a recent appearance on Fox News.
Details of a budget deal reached between the Senate Republicans and Gov. Shapiro started to emerge last week, but House Democrats balked over the inclusion of PASS scholarships. PASS scholarships passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 29-21 with Democratic Senator Tony Williams from Philadelphia joining every Republican member in supporting it. The following day the House Rules Committee voted the proposal down in an 18-15 party-line vote and Majority Leader Matt Bradford declared PASS scholarships dead in the House.
On Friday, the Senate passed a $45.5 billion spending plan that they say reflects their agreement with Gov. Shapiro. The package is a couple hundred million dollars less than what Gov. Shapiro proposed in March and about $1.7 billion less than the budget the House passed a few weeks ago. It includes about $800 million more for public education along with $100 million for PASS scholarships and a $150 million increase for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).
With the budget still in limbo, both the House and Senate have since adjourned without a clear timetable for when they might return. All eyes are now on the House to see if they agree to the deal, and send the budget to Gov. Shapiro for his signature, or amend out the PASS scholarships and send the budget back to the Senate. Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward has said publicly that without PASS scholarships, their agreement with the governor is null and void and that the Senate would remove funding for other programs in the budget that they do not necessarily support.