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What's behind Pa.'s ongoing budget impasse

Plus, when a majority isn't enough to pass a bill.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

July 13, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Ongoing dispute, higher tuition, outdated law, higher bar, school money woes, 'warning shot,' voluntary info, principal call, and rent-to-eviction
Pennsylvania is still without a state budget nearly two weeks after the June 30 deadline.

Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso reports that legislative technicalities and bad blood over an axed school voucher proposal are prolonging the impasse.

Still left undone are budget-enabling code bills, at least one of which must be passed alongside the main spending plan legislation.

Also causing the delay is a mundane constitutional prerequisite for bills to become law: Before legislation goes to the governor, presiding officers in both chambers must sign it.

Caught up in the impasse are a set of bills that provide funding to Pennsylvania's four state-related universities

Democrats, including Gov. Josh Shapiro, support raising state aid to Penn State, Pitt, and Temple by 7% to $623 million, collectively — much of it to subsidize tuition discounts for students from Pennsylvania. The schools have some of the highest in-state tuition rates in the U.S. already.

But Republicans in the state House have said they’d rather send money directly to students than to the schools, whose leaders have declined to commit to tuition freezes even if the funding hike is approved. Funding for a fourth state-related university, Lincoln, already passed. Republicans noted it was the only state-related school to commit to a tuition freeze this year.

"Our friends on the other side of the aisle simply say, 'The status quo is good enough, let’s just fund it.' The truth is, you can fund it, and you can get reforms."

—Pa. House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) on GOP calls for more university transparency in exchange for state funding

» Why some say an effort to fix Pa.’s outdated probation law does more harm than good

How Harrisburg Works: Why is there a higher bar for some bills?

Recently, bills to provide taxpayer funding to four Pennsylvania universities failed repeatedly in the state House despite having approval from a majority of lawmakers.

That’s because such legislation must clear a higher bar — approval from two-thirds of lawmakers — in order to pass.

In this edition of How Harrisburg Works, Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso details the colorful history that led to that requirement. Check out spotlightPA.org later today to read more.

Have a question? Email scaruso@spotlightpa.org with the subject line “How Harrisburg Works.”

Every year, Pennsylvania lawmakers pass a bill (or bills) alongside the budget that routes money to the commonwealth's four state-related universities: Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple. 

These schools are not fully controlled by the commonwealth: They are run by boards of trustees with members selected by internal elections and state appointments, and they offer a tuition discount for in-state students funded with state dollars.

Recently, a majority of lawmakers in the state House voted to approve funding for the schools — but that wasn’t enough for the legislation to pass. These bills require approval from two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers. 

This higher-than-usual bar for final passage was first approved at an 1873 constitutional convention.

The convention, according to a 1967 paper by historian Mahlon Hellerich, was the product of a multiyear grassroots campaign, championed by newspapers, that argued lawmaking in Pennsylvania had become sloppy, opaque, and corrupt.

Bills sometimes appeared on the floor without being voted on in committee, and amendments were adopted before language was available to the public. Legislation even passed the state House and state Senate by voice votes without recording who voted for what.

A particular concern for the campaigners was so-called “special legislation,” or bills that provided an advantage to a single person, company, or local government.

“This argument was to be repeated frequently in the next two years; that corporations were responsible for much of the corruption in the legislature as they bribed legislators to secure the grant of special privileges; that legislators had blackmailed businessmen by threatening to enact laws injurious to their interests; [and] that public offices under the control of the legislature were to the highest bidder,” Hellerich wrote.

In this context, safeguards against corruption were at the top of the delegates' minds when they met to discuss the new constitution.

At first, the convention suggested requiring a three-fourths vote to give money to private charitable or educational institutions.

Some delegates protested including the requirement at all, arguing that the state should “guard the treasury against plunderers, but give freely to charity and with a liberal hand.”

But supporters of the higher bar cited stories of lobbyists for questionable charities bribing lawmakers into allocating state dollars for their employers. That was enough, amid the widespread outrage over corruption and influence peddling, to instead approve a two-thirds vote for such allocations.

“The two-thirds ought to remain to protect the treasury, and protect the people from these organizations that without merit in themselves always have received public appropriations and probably always will,” a delegate said.

🏆 HIGH SCORE: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: University funding blocked and a historic Pa. market burns
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaMONEY PROBLEMS: Pennsylvania schools are preparing for the worst amid a state budget impasse that could imperil vital funding into the fall. While the state Senate preps for ancillary budget work, the chamber's GOP leaders — who need to sign off on a deal — have no plans to return to Harrisburg until September, leaving some districts eyeing cash reserves or loans to cover costs, LNP (paywall) reports.
    This week's second top news story in Pennsylvania'WARNING SHOT': When Pottstown Hospital was made a nonprofit in 2018, the local school district sued over a resulting tax revenue hit, leading to a favorable court ruling some called "a warning shot" for the nonprofit hospital industry writ large. Now, Pottstown's story is the anchor of a new KFF Health News piece on similar scrutiny of major tax breaks for monied nonprofit hospital systems nationwide.

    This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaVOLUNTARY INFO: A Pennsylvania agency dedicated to improving health care here has decided it won’t try to force hospitals to provide information on injuries and deaths of newborns. PennLive (paywall) reports the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority recently voted 6-2 to make the sharing of such data optional on the heels of a surge in reports of unexpected injuries or deaths of newborns in 2022.
      PRINCIPAL CALL: The Inquirer (paywall) reports it's not just teachers leaving the commonwealth: Principals are also departing at abnormally high rates. A Penn State study found 15.4% of principals left Pennsylvania schools between 2021-22 and 2022-23, a 4.2 percentage-point jump that marks the state's highest annual exodus on record. Among the reasons: impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

      RENT-TO-EVICTION: Insider took a look at rent-to-own company Home Partners and found eviction filings were more common than sales at properties in three major markets. One former tenant in Pennsylvania said she pressed Home Partners to reimburse her for the $4,000 she spent replacing foul carpets, which her realtor told her the company would do if she signed a non-disparagement clause. She refused.

      » APPhilly shootings may have begun earlier than police thought

      » INQUIRER: 1 in 6 districts still won’t keep pace with inflation

      » MARIJUANA MOMENT: Senators unveil marijuana legalization bill 

      » PENNLIVE: Abortion providers see uptick in out-of-state patients

      » WESA: Allegheny Co. votes to limit role of outside money in local races

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      TAKEAWAYS (Case No. 208)What is taken before you can get it?
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