The state House passed the main spending bill for its proposed budget Tuesday afternoon — a major step toward getting a plan finalized by the June 30 deadline.
But it only happened after the debate was overwhelmed by procedural arguments between GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai and Democrats, who are intensely divided over whether the plan represents an acceptable compromise.
The clashes started almost immediately.
Even though caucus leaders–both Democrats and Republicans–and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf say they support the spending plan overall, House Democrats wanted to note what it lacks: an increase to Pennsylvania’s $7.25 minimum wage.
But Turzai wouldn’t allow it and ordered any comments about provisions not in the budget to be stricken from the record.
At several points, discussions grew heated.
“We have a budget bill in front of us, and it is a serious vote,” Turzai told a member at one point. “If you want to seriously address the budget–that’s what’s in front of us–you don’t get to continue to make motions or find ways with respect to the speech to have a discussion on a minimum wage bill.”
Democrats, like Minority Leader Frank Dermody, accused Turzai of imposing House rules selectively.
“Frankly it was outrageous,” he said. “We have the ability, we need the ability to debate the issues that are relevant to the bill.”
Other Democrats were more forceful.
“If we were not allowed to talk about what’s not in this budget, then me and my community would not be able to speak,” Summer Lee, a freshman representative from Allegheny County argued on the floor. “Because we are not represented in this budget today.”
Turzai also periodically admonished members of his own party for comments he deemed too far afield of the budget bill. Cumberland County Representative Greg Rothman, for instance, was told to stop talking about the budget’s lack of tax increases.
At one point Turzai also overruled his own majority leader, Bryan Cutler, who had attempted to stop Lee from making an analogy relating passing the budget to pulling the trigger of a gun.
By the time the bill got a vote, the debate had stretched for more than three and a half hours. But the result was as expected: it passed, 140 to 62.
Seven of the no-votes came from Republicans, and 55–well over half of the 93-member caucus — came from Democrats.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Dermody defended Democratic leadership’s support for the compromise plan.
“There are some very, very good things in the budget,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but we have a responsibility to run a state, we have a responsibility to make sure the schools are open, we have to make sure human services are funded.”
“We’re not going to have a budget impasse,” he added. “We’ve seen what happens when we do, and people suffer.”
Along with the lack of a minimum wage increase, most Democrats who spoke against the budget plan cited Republicans’ commitment to repealing a cash assistance program and expressed dissatisfaction with environmental funding.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, showed no signs that they plan to compromise on the minimum wage in the near future.
Cutler said while discussions on the issue are still happening, he thinks “it’s important to note we have more jobs that are currently open than we have people available to work…they’ll earn far more than the minimum wage in those career and technical jobs.”
Pennsylvania’s wage has been at the $7.25 federal minimum for a decade and is lower than that of any neighboring state.