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The Capitol

A long budget impasse and partisan standoffs dominated the Pa. legislature in 2023

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

Pennsylvania lawmakers gathered in the Capitol in March to hear Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget pitch.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s divided legislature is reflecting on a 2023 dominated by deadlock and hoping the dynamic turns around when the second half of the two-year session begins in January.

The full-time General Assembly sent Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro just under 80 bills as of Dec. 14 — roughly half of the annual output of recent years — with dozens of measures advanced by each chamber languishing without consideration in the other.

An effort to update Pennsylvania’s badly antiquated Election Code ahead of the 2024 presidential contest was sunk when lawmakers couldn’t agree on the right policies to embrace. A long-awaited constitutional amendment to benefit survivors of childhood sexual abuse has stalled for similar reasons. And key budget legislation was bogged down for months, forcing community colleges and libraries to make tough financial decisions.

That budget deadlock finally broke in mid-December, unleashing a torrent of stalled bills along with more than $1 billion in state dollars that couldn’t previously be spent. Lawmakers said they saw the deal as a victory for bipartisanship and struck a positive tone.

“We’re just getting started,” state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said.

But it was a slow start, and deep divisions remain.

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats controlled the state House and had the power to decide which bills to advance and which to disregard. Republican critics of the new majority said the caucus eschews compromise to play politically driven games with key legislation that appeals to its base to ensure Democrats maintain their slim majority next year.

“The House has sent us a lot of things, a lot of issues. Many of them, we have strong philosophical disagreements on,” state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) told Spotlight PA in December, ahead of the budget deal. “Even the ones where we have expressed a willingness to come to the table, we still can't seem to get any clear indication what their willingness may be to actually bring the issue to resolution.”

Democrats countered that their entrenched GOP counterparts in the state Senate are intransigent and have refused to work with them.

“Obviously, there's going to be a learning curve,” state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) told Spotlight PA in late November. “The Senate has been in the majority for 30 years with a House Republican majority that largely went along with their priorities.”

There were still breakthroughs. Lawmakers passed a bill that increased the number of elderly people eligible for a property tax rent rebate program for the first time in over a decade, rewrote the state law regulating dog ownership to fully fund kennel inspections, and expanded insurance coverage for preventative breast cancer screenings.

And after months of impasse, the legislature's final budget deal more than tripled the size of the state’s child care tax credit and funded the state’s first public legal defense program, colleges and libraries, and a student teacher stipend.

In addition to finishing the budget, the state legislature recently passed a host of bills — many addressing criminal justice — that ranged from lowering fitness standards for police officers to join academies to increasing and standardizing the rights of incarcerated women.

Legislative leaders hope that a year's worth of frustrations lays the groundwork for a more productive future.

“We're not going to get any kind of ideological issues through the legislature,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, (R., Westmoreland) said in an interview in December. “We have a Republican Senate and Democratic House. We need to work together to find consensus on middle-of-the-road legislation that helps the commonwealth.”

Policy differences and poison pills

There are fundamental differences between what legislative Democrats and Republicans believe is right for Pennsylvania, and these disagreements often led to the demise of bills in 2023.

When state House Democrats passed a measure that would raise the state’s $7.25 minimum wage to $15 an hour, Pittman called the number “unreasonable.” Democrats countered that any lower wage would be ineffective, and the bill stalled.

Even when the caucuses agreed on the merits of a policy change, some bills sank under the weight of what are commonly known in Harrisburg as poison pills.

In January, state Senate Republicans advanced a constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window for childhood sexual abuse survivors to sue their abusers. Such amendments must complete a lengthy legislative process before being sent to voters for consideration.

But that’s not the only thing the measure would do. GOP lawmakers in the upper chamber added amendments that would expand voter ID requirements and make it easier for the legislature to shoot down regulations authorized by the governor.

State House Democrats have refused to bring the package up for a vote, accusing state Senate Republicans of using victims of sexual assault as political pawns and not negotiating with their caucus.

Instead, the Democratic caucus passed its own version of the measure without the added amendments. Then-Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), who himself was abused by a priest as a child, called state Senate Republicans’ actions “horrible and disgraceful and disgusting.”

Ward maintained in a conversation with Spotlight PA that a voter ID provision “should not be a poison pill.”

“If you look at polling, 80% of the commonwealth wants voter ID. They want it. So that's not a poison pill,” Ward said.

GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward at the governor's first bill signing of the year.
Commonwealth Media Services
GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward at the governor's first bill signing of the year.

Even when there is agreement that an issue exists, the majority caucuses have struggled to find consensus among their members.

Take the push to move Pennsylvania’s 2024 primary election so it will not coincide with Passover. Both the state House and Senate broadly agreed the date should change.

This fall, the state Senate sent the lower chamber a bill that would move the date to March 19 from April 23.

Instead of considering the bill as it was, the state House voted to add amendments, including one introduced by a Republican that would expand voter ID requirements. Other amendments, sponsored by Democrats, would give election workers more time to process ballots and allow voters to fix errors.

In the end, the state House rejected the bill. Most Democrats balked at backing any expansion of voter ID, while Republicans cited process concerns, including a late-night committee meeting in which lawmakers added the creation of a permanent mail voter list to the bill.

Democrats in the state House ultimately sent the upper chamber a bill that would change the primary date to April 2, which state Senate leadership declined to consider.

At the time, Bradford said he “was threading a needle” to find a bipartisan deal. But state House Republicans have argued the vote was an effort to hurt GOP lawmakers politically rather than fix the state’s voting law.

Text messages funded by state House Democrats’ campaign arm sent a day after the final vote said Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) “voted against bringing election integrity to our voting systems” and asked recipients to vote against him, according to a screenshot viewed by Spotlight PA.

“You build to 102 votes by listening to your caucus as well as members from the other caucus and landing there,” Cutler told Spotlight PA in December. “If the goal is political, which is what we've seen many times in some of these votes, and you want to pinch certain members on a tough vote, whether it's a gun vote or an abortion vote, then you don't mind that bills fail — because you got the vote that you wanted.”

Asked about the political text messages, Bradford retorted that “our Republican friends have some explaining to do.”

From the other side of the building, Pittman said watching the episode unfold was “mind-numbingly disappointing.”

“I think that that is probably one of the most abject failures of leadership I've certainly ever seen,” he added.

What’s in store for 2024

Lawmakers often argue that the quality of bills advanced by the General Assembly matters more than the quantity.

But the delayed legislative action on the final pieces of the budget — and leadership’s inability to find common ground and move forward — led to real-world consequences for community colleges, libraries, and more.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro signed the state’s $45.4 billion main budget in August, about a month after the deadline. He rejected a $100 million line item that would fund private school vouchers after state House Democrats voiced strong objections.

At the same time, Shapiro agreed to not authorize around $1 billion of spending on a handful of popular programs, including state aid for community colleges and libraries, a home repair grant program, and stipends for student teachers.

Amid closed-door talks between Bradford and Pittman aimed at ending the impasse, the two chambers traded legislation with many similarities and shared goals, such as adding $100 million-plus to a state tax credit for private school scholarships or slashing corporate taxes.

But Democrats also wanted to include other policy priorities, such as a tax break for low-income families and a state medical debt relief program, that Republicans rejected as unnecessary. This stalled a final agreement for months.

Sitting next to McClinton during a November panel hosted by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and CREDC, Ward said Democrats “had put a bunch of crap” in the bills. McClinton laughed in response, saying they had put “good things” in their proposal.

“We gave everybody a tax credit,” McClinton added.

In the end, the final budget deal passed last week didn’t include everything House Democrats asked for. But the expansion of the state’s child care tax credit and a provision broadening Medicaid recipients’ access to dental care were two proposals championed by Democrats.

Despite the year’s challenges, lawmakers say there’s reason for optimism in 2024. Four of the legislature’s most powerful leaders — Bradford, McClinton, Pittman, and Ward — told Spotlight PA that education is a top priority moving forward.

For Senate Republicans, the key to future deals is knowing when Shapiro and House Democrats are on the same page, and when the two differ.

Pittman said his caucus had assumed throughout early budget talks that the two “are speaking from one voice.”

“That was an incorrect assumption, obviously,” Pittman added.

For House Democrats, it’ll also mean accepting compromises in pursuing legislative goals. That could mean passing Senate GOP priorities opposed by a large number of their members, such as a slew of tough on crime bills they moved this month.

Sitting next to Ward at the Harrisburg Chamber panel, McClinton hinted that her caucus would keep taking those deals.

Whether it's the state’s minimum wage or an eventual investment in poor school districts, she said solutions will be the packages that can get the necessary number of votes.

“That's what it should be,” McClinton said.

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