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Top stories of 2023: the Pennsylvania budget impasse

The state Capitol building in Harrisburg on March 24, 2023.
Jeremy Long - WITF News
The state Capitol building in Harrisburg on March 24, 2023.

With Democrats in the House holding a narrow one-seat majority and Republicans controlling the Senate, newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro had to wait nearly six months past the deadline for his first state budget to be completed.

The impasse, which became one of the top stories of the year, began over a dispute about a $100 million school voucher program known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success.

The program would allow students in some of the poorest schools in the state to attend a private school. This was opposed by some Democrats who argued it was taking money away from public schools, especially after the Commonwealth Court ruled the state’s system of funding public schools was unconstitutional.

But the proposal was favored by the GOP-controlled Senate and Gov. Josh Shapiro, leading to a stalemate in the legislature.

In June, House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County warned the June 30 deadline might not be met and he blamed Democrats.

“We are ready to have a serious discussion about the budget,” Cutler said. “I am tired of them governing towards the next election. They must begin governing the commonwealth. That is the role that they have been handed, even though it’s only a one-seat majority”

To break the impasse and appease House Democrats, Shapiro said he would line-item veto the voucher program once it reached his desk, but this irked Republican lawmakers who said he backed out of an agreement and a campaign promise.

Shapiro called on the divided legislature to work together.

“We should not delay getting the good people of Pennsylvania the help and the support they need,” Shapiro said. “I hope the Senate will be responsible stewards of the public trust and return to Harrisburg to sign this bill.”

Feeling betrayed by the governor breaking from his previous support, the Senate did not return to sign the budget and send it to him until early August.

When the Senate returned, Shapiro promptly signed the budget, but the work still was not complete.

Several programs, such as Whole-Home Repair and Level-Up, could not be funded until additional legislation known as code bills were passed.

The Senate was the first to return, moving code bills out of committee in late August, thus beginning a several-month period of the bills going between chambers.

On Dec. 13, the last day before the general assembly took off for holiday recess, the code bills were voted on for the final time.

The bills reached Shapiro late that night.

At a late-night news conference, he said he was pleased the impasse was over and the government was delivering.

“We’re going beyond what the budget that I signed this past summer calls for and delivering even more for families,” Shapiro said.

And with this year’s process finally completed, Shapiro and his team are now preparing for next year’s budget address, set for Feb. 6.