State Sen. Vincent Hughes said Thursday that Democrats will not budge on two core issues in the 44-day state budget impasse: restoring the cuts to education funding and exercising a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale sector.
Hughes, the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had planned to use the city school district headquarters as a backdrop for his pronouncement Thursday, but then rushed back to Harrisburg for ongoing budget talks. Instead, he spoke with reporters by phone and focused most of his comments on education, natural gas and the state of negotiations on the whole.
“I will also say that, without a full restoration of education funding — which has not been agreed to, nor has the Marcellus Shale tax — there is no deal, no arrangement, Hughes said. “Everything else is sidebar.”
Although the Democrats are standing firm on those two issues, Hughes did say the tenor has changed slightly in Harrisburg.
“There have been, for the first time in several months, two days of back-to-back conversations, on Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “I’m not going to say there’s any significant progress, but I am going to say that all the legislative leaders from all four caucuses plus the governor will be at the table. That is some sign that we are earnestly trying to figure out some way to move forward.”
The issues dividing the legislature go beyond school funding and natural gas taxation. Wolf Press Secretary Jeffrey Sheridan said the governor’s budget restores funding for county human services agencies, increases funding for programs that help aging Pennsylvanians while also increasing choices for their care and support, and provides additional funding for programs that help individuals with disabilities.
“The governor’s proposed budget commits $27.9 million to county-run human services as the first step to fully restoring all of the cuts enacted by Republicans over three years,” Sheridan said in a printed statement. “Gov. Wolf’s budget also provides $2.5 million dollars to the Department of Human Services to fight the growing heroin and opioid epidemic, invests an additional $500,000 to promote employment for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and includes $1 million to reduce homelessness among veterans. The budget passed by Republicans is detrimental to human services and continues the damaging cuts they enacted over the past four years.”
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, who joined the press pool call, commended Hughes’ stance just moment before convening his own press conference from his constituent services office on North Broad Street.
Thomas said Wolf proposed a budget in March that would have invested $120 million to early education initiatives that would allow Pennsylvania to offer pre–K to all 3– and 4–year–olds in the state. Wolf’s proposal would also have increased basic education funding by $400 million, and special education funding by $100 million.
“After years of harsh cuts, I am glad to see that Gov. Wolf understands what needs to be done in order to turn our schools around and ensure each and every child in the commonwealth receives a quality and thorough education like our state constitution requires,” said Thomas, D–Philadelphia. “What Gov. Wolf proposed earlier this year is truly a transformational budget that would lift our schools into the 21st century and prepare our students for a modern workforce.”
Thomas noted that Wolf’s proposal would have increased funding for higher education by $148 million, with $45.3 million devoted to colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania System of State Higher Education.
“As higher education becomes ever more important, the Republican majority has made it harder for average Pennsylvanians to obtain it by not backing Gov. Wolf’s proposal and instead passing a spending plan that does little more than kick the can down the road,” Thomas said. “Providing students with an opportunity to better themselves, and in turn better our commonwealth, is a vital responsibility for public officials and one that this state has been neglecting for far too long. Funding these increases with a reasonable tax on shale drillers and a few other commonsense ideas is not just good policy, it’s the right thing to do for the people of this state.”