Legislature Passes Budget that Boosts Education Funding, but Misses Other Opportunities

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By Associated Press

June 28, 2021

Gov. Wolf says he will sign the legislation.

HARRISBURG — Next year’s state budget will pump millions into struggling schools, but also sets billions of dollars aside while the state struggles to reopen from a historic pandemic. 

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he plans to sign the budget this week.

While Republicans—who wrote the budget—claim they’re being fiscally responsible, Democrats are calling it a missed opportunity. 

“It is not the kind of practice we should do, to keep squirrelling away money while we go begging to get things done,” said Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), who nonetheless supported the $39.8 billion general fund budget plan.

The House vote was 140-61 for the budget, with a handful of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans joining dozens of the more liberal Democrats in voting against it. The Senate vote was 43-7.

The state got $7 billion in COVID relief funds, and the budget puts about $5 billion into savings. 

The budget also boosts K-12 education state support by $300 million.

“It provides the largest education funding increase in state history so our students can get the education and training they need for good jobs and to enjoy a successful life in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

“We can all see the warning signs — supply shortages, employee shortage,” said Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford). “And we understand that yes, a one-time infusion of money into the economy will stimulate it, but only temporarily.”

Democrats in the House and Senate had proposed programs that would have boosted people that were struggling in those areas.

What’s in Pennsylvania’s 2021-22 Budget

With federal money and $2.4 billion in coronavirus money in 2020-21, and including additional spending approved later in the year, the current year’s budget is about $39.8 billion, according to Republican staff on the House Appropriations Committee.

By comparison, the 2021-22 spending deal passed Friday amounts to $38.6 billion in the general fund, along with $1.2 billion in federal support that mostly pays Medicaid costs and about $1 billion on coronavirus relief, for a total of $40.8 billion, or an increase of roughly 2.6%.

About two-thirds of the new spending is on human services, such as Medicaid, while budget makers also had to use $1 billion-plus to fill a hole in the prisons budget created when the state used federal money to cover costs in that department this year.

Here are some of the other areas getting funding:

  • About $370 million in federal aid for continuing efforts to combat the ongoing pandemic
  • $280 million to nursing homes and similar facilities, both drawing from the federal pandemic money
  • $279 million into transportation infrastructure
  • $30 million in grants to prevent violence

Education saw major increases. 

  • $350 million in pandemic money on learning loss, summer enrichment and afterschool programs, to help children whose educations were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • About $100 million is earmarked for the state’s 100 poorest districts, partly in response to a lawsuit over school funding that will soon go to trial in Commonwealth Court.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said the money will “help lift people up in tough, challenging school districts,” while Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh) called it “an acknowledgement of the struggles that our poor schools face.”

Reaction to Pennsylvania’s 2021-22 Budget

Democrats criticized the decision to put $2.5 billion into the state’s rainy day fund instead of more funding in those and other areas. The criticism came even from those who voted for the budget.

House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said he voted for the budget to avoid a government shutdown, but argued Pennsylvania is not in a position to claim a surplus.

“We can’t afford a surplus because the requirements of this commonwealth haven’t been met,” Harris said.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate remains just under 7%.

Some Democrats wanted greater spending to help small businesses, improve public health, and fix toxic schools. 

The budget deal did not include a raise in the state’s minimum wage.

“We have not done anything for the restaurants, for those in our districts who are making $2.83 whether they’re serving a hamburger or they’re serving a steak,” said House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia).

Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) said the public will not be happy “when they find out that this money could have been pushed out in a historic, epic way, to invest in the people of Pennsylvania and it wasn’t.”

Among the budget legislation’s other provisions are a ban on the Department of Human Services creating new programs not expressly authorized by the General Assembly, a Republican effort to control costs at the agency. It also would end overtime regulations imposed by Wolf.

State Rep. Summer Lee (D-Allegheny) said the budget doesn’t strike the proper balance.

“This budget puts billions of dollars of vital funding away in our state’s Rainy Day Fund, even though the people of our commonwealth are currently drowning. There is certainly a balance to strike between fiscal responsibility and hoarding, but this budget certainly did not strike it.”

She wasn’t alone in this criticism.

— Patrick Abdalla contributed to this report.


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