Inches from finish line, Pa. House budget talks falter over education

An impromptu coalition of Democrats and some Republicans managed to sink a major bill at the last minute. House Speaker Mike Turzai and other GOP leaders were dismayed. (AP Photo, file)

An impromptu coalition of Democrats and some Republicans managed to sink a major bill at the last minute. House Speaker Mike Turzai and other GOP leaders were dismayed. (AP Photo, file)

House lawmakers were one bill away from sending Governor Tom Wolf a complete budget package Thursday night when negotiations abruptly broke down.

The issue?

Two components of the measure that would have, among other things, authorized $6.7 billion in basic education funding.

Before the Senate approved it, they adjusted some provisions related to career and technical education, or CTE. They had been part of a bill package that unanimously passed the House in March.

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House Democrats said they only realized late Thursday that the Senate had omitted the initiatives their caucus favored–among them, an online career resource center, a requirement to inventory workforce development programs, advisory committees for CTE programs, and a grant program designed to encourage apprenticeships.

“We wanted to send a message,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said of the bill’s crash-and-burn. “Look, you made a commitment. We heard that in the House. It should have been done.”

Dermody and the rest of the Democrats registered their unhappiness in a committee meeting ahead of the final vote. At first, they agreed to put their concerns aside and moved the bill through unanimously.

But then in the approximately fifteen minutes it took them to gavel back in on the House floor, something changed.

Republicans were taken by surprise.

Their caucus holds a commanding majority of the chamber; even if they’d lost every Democratic vote, their members would have been able to pass the education code easily.

But an interesting alchemy had emerged. A number of the Republicans’ most conservative members voted against the bill — in large part because of a separate provision that would lower the compulsory age of school attendance from eight to six and increase the age a student can leave school from 17 to 18.

Mark Gillen, a Republican from Berks County, said on the chamber floor that the late addition of that provision had blindsided him and other like-minded members.

“I’m concerned from the perspective of religious freedom,” he said, “I think it’s perfectly consistent to embrace religious freedom and educational freedom and freedom of choice in the commonwealth and then meet our constitutional responsibility to public education.”

Several moderates from the southeastern part of the state joined the impromptu group of no-voters, and all the Democrats except one dissented.

The bill failed 77 to 121.

GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai, who had just given a speech imploring members to “find common ground and compromise to move forward,” appeared nonplussed.

“My goodness,” he said. “Eighteen years ago I was elected in a special election on this date and boy, what a great anniversary.”

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The parties scattered to their respective caucus rooms for a debrief.

Some, like GOP Whip Kerry Benninghoff, were angry.

“We had a unanimous vote coming out of the Rules Committee,” he said. “Ten minutes later, you turn your backs on it? You turned your backs on the public.”

When they emerged, Democratic leaders said they believed they would make progress negotiating their priorities.

“We don’t want to delay the budget,” Dermody said. “We cared about people keeping their deals. We’re going to work together with [Republicans] continually.”

He indicated Democrats will be willing to approve the bill without the career and technical education component if they receive a firmer commitment from House and Senate Republicans that the issue would be taken back up in the fall.

Mike Straub, the spokesman for House Republicans, said the caucus was dismayed with Democrats but trying to “work out a path forward.”

“There will certainly be some members who are not going to budge” on changing the compulsory school age, he said. “But there will be other members who — discussions will continue.”

Governor Tom Wolf had planned to announce his own plans for signing or vetoing budget bills late Thursday evening.

That finale to a tumultuous budget week is instead expected — tentatively — to happen Friday.

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