School funding, permitting at top of Pa. legislature’s 2024 agenda

Looming over the legislature is a court ruling that declared the state’s education funding system to be unconstitutionally inequitable and ordered lawmakers to correct it.

The Pa. Capitol building

The dome of Pennsylvania’s Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

In the new year, Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to put a lot of their energy into changing permitting processes, getting a long-sought constitutional amendment over the finish line, and figuring out how to overhaul the commonwealth’s education funding system.

The business of lawmaking won’t resume right away when Harrisburg’s customary holiday break winds down. State House Democratic leaders say a leak above their chamber will keep them out of the building — and out of session — until the spring.

But leaders in both chambers say they don’t plan to be idle during that time.

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Looming over the entire body is a nearly year-old court ruling that declared Pennsylvania’s education funding system to be unconstitutionally inequitable and ordered lawmakers to correct it. For months, a bipartisan commission has been holding hearings on the issue, and state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) says that work will continue during the recess in 2024.

The commission plans to release a report based on its hearings in early January. After that, Bradford said, the Democratic-controlled state House and GOP-controlled state Senate have a lot of hard work ahead to figure out a consensus plan.

The commonwealth “made a down payment” in the just-passed state budget, he said, “but there’s clearly decades of underfunding and inadequacy, and then the ripple effects of that … so we’ve got to really talk about what those equity issues look like and how to affirmatively address them.”

Bradford said his caucus’ priorities also include continuing to vocally push several bills Democrats already passed — particularly ones that would raise the commonwealth’s $7.25 minimum wagebroaden protections for LGBTQ people, and require universal background checks for gun purchases.

He said it is “embarrassing” that the legislature is still weighing these issues.

The state Senate hasn’t acted on any of these bills — Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said the Democrats’ minimum wage number, for one, was “unreasonable.”

The caucuses also split last session on a long-delayed constitutional amendment that would open a window for people to sue over sexual abuse they suffered as children. State House Democrats passed it, but state Senate Republicans countered that they would move the measure only if it were bundled with provisions to expand voter ID and make it easier for the legislature to reject executive branch regulations. Bradford said the effort continues to be a priority for his caucus.

A spokesperson for the state Senate said its leaders are primarily concerned with pushing bills in one area: permitting and regulatory reform.

Spokesperson Kate Flessner listed bills that the chamber has passed but which haven’t gotten state House consideration, including one that would require agencies to make public more information about the status of permits, one that would require legislative approval of more regulations, and one that would create a new automatic review process for many regulations.

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These measures, Flessner said, are intended to cut “government red tape to help grow family sustaining jobs.”

Lawmakers will return to Harrisburg in January for a constitutionally required meeting on the first Tuesday of the year, and will also convene in the Capitol rotunda — instead of in the state House chamber, to avoid construction — on the first Tuesday in February for the governor’s state of the state address.

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