A leaky roof is about to close the Pa. House for months. Can the legislature finish a budget first?

Pa. lawmakers have a lot of work left before a state budget is finalized. They have only a week until construction closes the state House for the winter.

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

The interior of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — State lawmakers will return to Harrisburg next week in hopes of finally ending nearly six months of partisan deadlock on the last pieces of Pennsylvania’s $45.4 billion budget.

While Gov. Josh Shapiro’s signature on the spending plan in August has allowed most of those dollars to be sent to K-12 schools, state workers’ paychecks, and other programs, disagreements between the Democratic-controlled state House and Republican-controlled state Senate over a handful of budget-enabling bills have left funding for libraries, community colleges, and nonprofits across the commonwealth in legislative purgatory.

Top lawmakers are aware of the consequences of their inaction, and while trading blame, have set a high bar for the coming session days.

“We cannot leave Harrisburg next week without addressing some of the things that must be taken care of,” Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) told Spotlight PA Tuesday. “And I don’t believe that we will [leave without finishing].”

Although both chambers have only scheduled three days of votes in what will almost certainly be the final session week for months, leaders in both chambers have told lawmakers and staff to prepare for up to a full week in Harrisburg.

That’s because a failure to act this coming week could have extended consequences. In an email Tuesday, state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) announced that the lower chamber will take a nearly three-month break from voting session this winter while repairs are made to water damage in the chamber’s ceiling.

The construction means the legislature will be unable to send any bills to Gov. Josh Shapiro until the chamber reopens in mid-March. The closure also happens to coincide with the resignation of a Democratic representative who won a judgeship this November, which will cost the chamber’s Democrats their one-vote majority until at least February.

The main item on this coming week’s agenda is finishing code bills, the budget-related legislation that serves as an instruction manual for state spending.

There’s a lot of ground to cover. For months, state House Democrats and state Senate Republicans have struggled to find compromise, spending the fall trading different code bills that include similar proposals and pet priorities, but are packaged in differing ways.

Those competing bills have included increases in a state tax credit for private school scholarships — a Republican priority — and authorization for the Shapiro administration to spend hundreds of millions of state dollars on a number of fully-funded education programs — a top issue for Democrats.

Along with releasing funding for community colleges and libraries, the legislation is needed to route extra dollars to the state’s poorest districts, fund universal free school breakfast, and create a stipend program for student teachers.

At a ceremonial bill signing on Dec. 1 for legislation finally funding four state related universities held up amid the impasse, Shapiro noted that much of the budget was finished, but that lawmakers still “have a lot of work to do.”

“I have reason to be optimistic given how much progress we’ve made over the last few months,” Shapiro added. “And I’m hopeful that that progress will continue when they return.”

Democrats’ plans for a long absence in the new year drew criticism from legislative Republicans. Some rank-and-file members said it was politically motivated, given the majority party’s pattern of recessing the chamber for months whenever their majority disappears.

“We should not skip voting session every time the Democrats lose their slim majority,” state Rep. Brad Roae (R., Crawford) said in a statement.

Others, such as Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana), simply offered snark.

“You would think if I-95 could be opened in 12 days they can fix a water leak in a shorter period of time than 12 weeks,” Pittman told Spotlight PA.

But for their part, House Republican leadership did not criticize the timing.

“Understanding that significant work needs to be done to repair water damage to the House chamber, while also recognizing that much unfinished work remains legislatively, House Republicans are prepared to ensure the voices of their districts are heard during any scheduled session days,” House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said in a statement.

Democrats control the House by a single vote and have had to navigate five vacancies since last year’s election, including one due to a death and four from resignations. A sixth is set to open up next Friday, when state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks) has said he will resign his seat in preparation of taking a local judgeship he ran for and won in the November municipal election.

Under state law, the earliest McClinton could schedule a special election to fill Galloway’s suburban Philadelphia seat is February 13. Democrats are favored to hold the seat and their majority, although the district has trended Republican in recent statewide races.

In her email to state House lawmakers, McClinton said the leak in the top floor of the main Capitol building is “severe” and will require Capitol employees to do “weeks of scaffolding preparation, site evaluation, and hopefully remediation and renovation to the areas affected.”

In an interview with Spotlight PA last week, she added that the repairs were needed to “protect such a beautiful historic site and make sure that it doesn’t fall into any disrepair, or bring any lack of safety to everyone who’s in and out” of the chamber.

McClinton’s office did not reply to follow-up questions on the timeline for repairs or on holding voting sessions in another location. Current state House rules allow lawmakers to vote remotely.

The House will still meet, as is constitutionally required, on the first Tuesday of the year in the chamber. It will then convene an unusual session in the Capitol’s rotunda on the first Tuesday of February for Gov. Josh Shapiro’s annual budget address.

Even with the long winter recess, however, the state House has scheduled three more 2024 voting session days than the state Senate.

“I am fully confident that we will have a productive and meaningful Spring 2024 session, even as we work through some of these scheduling obstacles,” McClinton said.

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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Spotlight PA is dedicated to producing non­partisan investigative journalism about Pennsylvania government and urgent statewide issues. We are an independent watchdog unafraid to dig deep, fight for the truth and take on the powerful to expose wrongdoing and spur meaningful reform. We connect Pennsylvanians to their state, and to each other, through public service journalism that matters to their lives and is creatively told in the many modern, digital ways they consume their news.

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