Shapiro zeroes in on education, county programs in his first state budget address

Dozens of efforts would benefit from Gov. Josh Shapiro’s roughly $44 billion spending plan, many of them at the local level.

Listen 4:44
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Governor Josh Shapiro wants Pennsylvania to spend $1.6 billion more on its programs and services next year.

And there’s a phrase that connects all this new money — common sense.

Shapiro used it a lot in his budget address when pointing out how his ideas could help Pennsylvanians. A big reason he said it is because he has to.

For the first time in a decade, Pennsylvania’s legislature is split between the parties. Democrats control the House and Republicans hold the Senate, which means both chambers will have to agree on the final spending plan.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

It’s a challenge Shapiro said he’s up for, convinced that he can sell things like public safety, mental health, and education increases to any lawmaker.

“The people of Pennsylvania deserve it, and I look forward to doing that work with all of you.”

Dozens of efforts would benefit from Shapiro’s roughly $44 billion spending plan, many of them at the local level. One example is the $25 million the governor wants to give in tax breaks to nudge more people into what he called “critical” industries.

“Nurses, cops, teachers — we all know how vital they are for our communities,” he said. “We don’t have enough and if we don’t act now, the trendline shows greater shortfalls.”

Counties have begged the state to help them fill thousands of those jobs that remain open.

They’ve also asked for help funding community mental health programs, local health departments, and 911 call centers.

Altogether, Shapiro wants to earmark tens of millions of dollars for those efforts.

Counties would also get a share of $20 million for mental health services, which would partially restore funding lost a decade ago. Local health departments would get nearly $8 million more, while 911 centers would benefit from a roughly 40 cent increase in a tax that Pennsylvania cell phone users pay each month.

In exchange, the plan would get rid of two other cell phone taxes that would save phone users about 11% on their monthly bills. The state would in turn lose about $124 million in tax revenue each year.

“Every one of you represents a county, and every one of those counties relies on a 911 system. So let’s come together on this. It’s common sense,” he said.

It doesn’t stop there. Shapiro said state lawmakers should send $20 million to Black and Latino businesses, $36 million for volunteer fire departments and EMS agencies, and tens of millions more for seniors who need help paying their rent or property taxes. The governor’s plan would raise the income limit to $45,000 per year and raise the maximum amount a person could get from $650 to $1000 per month.

Ultimately though, it’s schools that stand to get the biggest share of new money.

Shapiro’s proposed budget includes free breakfast for every student and $100 million in block grant funding for school-based mental health services.

The budget also has an increase of $66.7 million for the state’s subsidized child care program. The largest chunk would be used to increase the full-time rate centers receive from the state to $11,000 per a seat.

Pennsylvania has nearly 4,000 unfilled child care jobs and 38,300 eligible children on waitlists. Shapiro said by increasing the rate, centers will be able to pay staff more and offer better benefits.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Then there was the main event — Shapiro’s response to a recent Commonwealth Court ruling that found the state’s funding of K-12 schools, which relies heavily on local property tax, to be unconstitutional.

“We are all acknowledging that this court has ordered us to come to the table and come up with a better system, one that passes constitutional muster,” he said.

“It will take all of our ideas for not just how many dollars we set aside from the state for public education, but how we drive those dollars out to local districts adequately and equitably.”

While Shapiro described his proposal as a first step and “significant down payment,” funding advocates said it merely keeps up with inflation.

The budget includes a 7.8% increase for both basic and special education funding and another $100 million a year to repair and improve school buildings.

“I think it’s disappointing that this was the first step,” said Donna Cooper with Children First.

Initially, many thought the plan did not include supplemental funding for the state’s poorest districts, known as Level Up, since it wasn’t mentioned in Shapiro’s remarks. That money, which had been a separate item in past budgets, is included under basic education, the Governor’s Office said Wednesday.

Under Shapiro’s proposal, basic education funding would increase by almost $797 million, with $225 million going to the state’s 100 poorest districts, the same amount as last year.

Cooper, a top aide to former Governor Ed Rendell, said given the size of the state’s surplus, and the recent court ruling, Shapiro’s budget plays it too safe.

“They could have gone bigger and they should have gone bigger,” she said.

Pennsylvania should end the fiscal year with a surplus of nearly $6.7 billion and another $5 billion in its rainy day fund, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

Both amounts are at record highs, but they aren’t expected to last.

Cooper said her hope is now with the legislature.

“While it’s unusual for the House and Senate to be asking for more than the governor, it’s not something that’s impossible. I’m hoping they’ll do that.”

But so far, some state lawmakers actually want to spend less than Shapiro.

Republican Senate President Kim Ward said while she agrees the state should spend more on things like child care, she’s hesitant.

“That is very important to families. Again, we just have to find the funding,” she said.

Even though budget experts expect the state to have billions in extra cash by the summer, for years, Republicans have said surpluses should be saved in case of a recession.

And there are other sticking points. Senate GOP budget negotiator Scott Martin said if public school students get more money, so should charter school kids.

“We can’t be just stuck in the same position of putting much more money into something that we all agree, and the courts have said, that we need to change and we need to fix.”

Stephen Bloom, with the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, agrees.

Bloom said he was disappointed Shapiro didn’t talk more about school choice — something Shapiro expressed support for on the campaign trail — and would like to see more money for tax credit and voucher programs.

On the opposite side, others said they were disappointed by the absence of charter school funding reform and greater accountability for private schools that receive public money.

Democrats are celebrating Shapiro’s ideas, but even some of them want to see more spending on things like education and the environment.

That aside, House Speaker Joanna McClinton said she and others are ready to roll up their sleeves to make sure Pennsylvania’s budget is finalized by the July 1 deadline.

“We’re all in this together, and we’re gonna work with Governor Shapiro to get the job done,” she said.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal