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Voucher bill standoff

By John Finnerty
Capitolwire.com Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG (June 30) – The race to finish the state budget begins with a staring contest – Senate Republicans on Thursday passed a controversial but potentially historic school voucher bill that House Democrats say they won’t take up.

Both chambers recessed Thursday without taking further action on the budget, leaving the spending plan and related code bills unfinished as the time before the deadline to get a plan in place dwindles to hours.

Of course, missing the June 30 deadline is hardly unprecedented. Last year’s budget was eight days late and former Gov. Tom Wolf’s first budget resulted in an impasse that dragged on for months – it wasn’t finally resolved until March.

Senate Republicans have been pressing to get the provisions in House Bill 479 included in the budget and Gov. Josh Shapiro has repeatedly said he supports the concept while saying he thinks any move to allow vouchers must also include a number of other initiatives to better-fund and otherwise improve public schools.

The Senate approved HB 479 (after amending the voucher language into a House bill aimed at changing the reimbursements for ambulance trips) on a mostly party-line vote. The Democrat who supported the bill was Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. Williams delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor in defense of his support of the measure, saying he’d been targeted in the primaries over his support of school choice options for family but won re-election decisively nonetheless.

Williams, like Republican proponents, said his support of the measure was focused on providing opportunities for families who feel trapped by unsafe or otherwise failing public schools.

Under the measure, families that live in poor performing school districts would be eligible for state-funded scholarships — $5,000 a year for students in grades K-8; $10,000 for high school students; and $15,000 for special needs students – that could be used to pay private school tuition.

The legislation would provide $100 million in scholarships.

But House Democrats insist that the measure won’t get a vote in that chamber and if it did it would fail, despite Democrats narrow 102-101 majority in that chamber.

House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said his caucus is “united” in opposition to the bill.

“There are not the votes for it, it’s not coming up and, if it comes up, it will be defeated,” Bradford told reporters late Thursday.

Bradford blamed the impasse on Senate Republicans who have yet to move any budget-related bills. The House passed a spending plan in early June.

But House Republican leaders said House Democrats are causing the impasse by their unwillingness to compromise to get a budget deal in place.

“They are hell-bent on passing a budget with 102 votes. If they don’t move off that position, we may never get a budget,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.