Pa. lawmakers passed a budget on time, but here’s what they didn’t do

Erie Times-News [Erie PA]

June 29, 2021

By Candy Woodall

Pennsylvania legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf all claimed some level of victory after the state budget passed the General Assembly late Friday night. 

Wolf, a Democrat, championed what he saw as wins for his party, especially the largest education funding increase in state history. 

But the $416 million state funding increase in public education was less than the $1.3 billion Wolf wanted, which he intended to pay for with a tax hike on high earners before federal stimulus money and bigger tax revenues flowed in.

When Republicans cheered the budget passage on their way out of Harrisburg, they were quick to say they blocked Wolf’s “huge tax burden.” 

But for all the political theater, lawmakers left the state capital with a lot of unfinished business.

Despite the lingering pandemic fallout and the challenges Pennsylvania faced before COVID-19, lawmakers did little to solve problems this session other than passing a budget. 

Here’s what they didn’t do: 

  • Didn’t lessen student debt
  • Didn’t pass LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws 
  • Didn’t raise the minimum wage
  • Didn’t legalize recreational marijuana like neighboring states
  • Didn’t take action on climate change
  • Didn’t allow more time for pre-canvassing election ballots as requested by counties
  • Didn’t pass ethics reform or police reform
  • Didn’t expand broadband
  • Didn’t pass cocktails to go
  • Didn’t pass a window for justice for priest abuse victims

How the legislative session ended

Lawmakers won’t be back for voting sessions until late September, and neither party accomplished their wish list from January to June.

For example, the Republican-controlled Legislature couldn’t get anti-abortion bills, expanded gun rights or tighter election laws past Wolf’s threatened veto pen. 

Democrats couldn’t get their agenda past the majority party, especially their repeated calls to spend the $7.3 billion federal stimulus on fair school funding, relief for small businesses and restaurants, hazard pay and more. 

By the end of budget talks, the new state spending plan allocated only $1 billion of that money.

Democrats contended Republicans are squirreling away most of the federal stimulus in hopes their party can win the governor’s seat in 2022 and have plenty of state money to use, or to use in some way next year that will benefit them in the midterms. 

“Republicans didn’t want to give Democrats a win and use this money on anything that is incredibly popular among Pennsylvanians,” said J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s former press secretary and the executive director of Commonwealth Communications, a progressive advocacy group.

But Republicans argue they are saving the money for a rainy day or to hedge against a potential deficit in the coming fiscal years. 

“Rather than spend all this year’s surplus and federal stimulus funds as the Democrats have been advocating, this budget prudently anticipates tomorrow’s challenges and assures the Commonwealth is in a solid financial position to address next year’s projected budget deficit,” Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, said in a statement.

What’s next in Harrisburg?

House Democratic Caucus Secretary Tina Davis, D-Bucks, and other Democrats said a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was mostly squandered during this legislative session.

“We were able to help some schools, but knowing there are billions of surplus dollars going unused that could help workers, businesses and taxpayers means we are far from done working,” she said.

“We’re going to keep up the fight to make sure these dollars go where they’ll help the most people.”

Democrats won’t have to fight alone, according to Abbott’s predictions. 

“There are going to be a lot of people upset that the Legislature banked billions in one-time funds that were sent from the federal government to help Pennsylvanians, restaurants, bars, child care centers, small businesses,” he said.

“Those folks aren’t going away.”

Child USAdvocacy said it will continue its fight to reform child sex abuse laws and allow adults abused as children to get justice in court.

Priest abuse victims were close to legal recourse this year, but the Department of State failed to properly advertise a proposed constitutional amendment that would’ve prompted a statewide referendum.

The Office of State Inspector General cited “internal systemic failures,” but no outside influence or “intentional malfeasance.”

The state department error followed years of a power struggle, in which Senate Republicans would not schedule a vote on a temporary window that would allow victims to sue abusive priests and the institutions that protected them. 

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has said the bill is unconstitutional and would open the state to lawsuits. In the spring, she told KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh she was working with legal experts to write a stronger bill that would hold up in courts.  

Attorney General Josh Shapiro disagrees with that assessment.

“There are no legitimate constitutional concerns to providing survivors a fair chance in court, which is why no Senator has provided us with any constitutional questions to answer…Why hasn’t the Senate given brave survivors the vote they were promised?” he said. 

Child advocates think the reason is increased campaign donations to Senate Republican leaders from the Catholic Church and insurance lobbies. 

And that is business as usual in Harrisburg and why little will probably get done when lawmakers return in September, Abbott said. 

“The whole legislative session reflects the interests in the building that dominate the agenda,” he said. “When you have enough power, influence and money in Harrisburg, you get what you want. Others get left behind.”

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.