HARRISBURG (May 2) — Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Monday intent on averting last year's record-breaking budget stalemate — and the corresponding fiscal fallout — with an old trick in mind.
The House Education Committee advanced legislation Monday that would guarantee funding for schools during any future budget gridlock, much in the same way state employees and elected officials continue receiving paychecks during impasses.
House Bill 1159, sponsored by Rep. David Hickernell, R-Lancaster, advanced out of committee on a vote of 18-8.
“It's a pretty simple bill,” Hickernell said. “We'd never again have to risk schools closing or borrowing money when we have state dollars sitting in the Treasury.”
It's an idea that's bounced around the Legislature for over a decade — ever since then-Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed the first iteration of HB 1159 in 2004 for violating his constitutional right to disapprove of or alter funding levels in the General Appropriations bill. The legislation made it to his desk in the months following a budget cycle that hit some familiar beats: a first-year Democratic governor at odds with the Legislature over education funding, resulting in a six-month stalemate and schools threatening to close their doors after the Christmas holiday.
Hickernell had sponsored that bill, too, and said, at the time, the General Assembly discussed a possible veto override, but ultimately abandoned the idea.
“I think many of us wish we would have taken it a step further at that time because we wouldn't have had to endure what we endured the past few months,” he told the committee Monday.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration did not respond to questions Monday about the governor's position on HB 1159.
Education Committee Minority Chairman James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, chided the bill for resolving “any urgency to reduce a state budget crisis.”
“It serves as a disincentive to increase basic education funding or restore cuts from a previous administration...,” he said. “We have a responsibility to look at what is needed for our school districts, our children and to debate it in good faith and to resolve our differences and pass a budget each year. I think this cuts that legislative process.”
Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said he empathized with Roebuck's concern, but not enough to oppose the bill.
“I think that boat sailed a long time ago,” he said of protecting the legislative process. “It's a reality we face ... school districts were left holding the bag.”
Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, was less forgiving in his remarks.
“It seems to me that the only purpose for not voting for this is to leave the option for either side, the Legislature or the governor, to use school children as hostages during budget negotiations,” he said. “There’s simply no excuse for that.”
The 2015-16 budget impasse forced districts statewide to borrow upwards of $1 billion. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale estimated last week those loans cost taxpayers $50 million in interest payments.
Education Committee Majority Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, says “the money just isn't there” to replace the millions lost on borrowing costs, either.
“This is not about Gov. Wolf or Gov. Corbett or any governor,” he said. “This is simply about children. In the end, this is only one part of the budget but it's a part of the budget that is critical. This bill at least protects those children and makes sure our education system continues to work ... and more importantly, our taxpayers are not hurt paying interest payments while we squabble here in Harrisburg.”
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, did not respond to questions about when or if the bill will be considered by the full House.
It's not on the Senate Republican Caucus's priority list either, at the moment.
“There are a number of similar bills that have been introduced in the Senate,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “At this point, we haven’t discussed it recently as a caucus so it’s not clear what the direction will be.”