Josh Shapiro didn't mention these topics in his budget address. Why that matters.

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

After standing ovations for Lt. Gov. Austin Davis and Speaker of the House Joanna McClinton, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro urged fellow Democrats back to their feet.

He noted, in the opening remarks of his March 7 budget address, that Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, like both Davis and McClinton, was a history-maker in the rapidly diversifying General Assembly. It was a collegial olive branch to GOP lawmakers — the kind that some Republicans say wasn't present enough in the substance of his speech.

In showing his hand for the budget address, Pennsylvania's new governor offered a peek at whether the prolific former prosecutor, fundraiser and campaigner might govern as moderately as pledged.

"The governor's budget address was one of the longer ones in recent history," said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP political consultant in Pennsylvania. It gave him time to mention many things, but school choice and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) weren't among them, he said.

"If he had wanted to mention RGGI, he could have, but from what I've seen he included assumed revenue from it into his budget," he said.

As he made his case to voters last year, Shapiro positioned himself as a middle-ground hedge against the ultra-right conservativism of his GOP opponent and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, whose unpopular anti-abortion stance and affiliation with figures tied to antisemitism were attacked with relentless advertising. But Shapiro's flirtation with school choice and reservations about the cap-and-tax Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative were not in the cards presented March 7.

School choice

On the education front, Shapiro is proposing increases of $570 million in basic education funding and $100 million in special education.

“The governor’s budget proposal puts public education at the very top of his priority list," said Rick Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association union representing teachers across the commonwealth. "Public school students, parents, educators, and support professionals need his support to address the challenges they face. His budget plan shows that they have it.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the state legislature, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

Others — including members of the PA Schools Work Campaign, representing 30 Pennsylvania organizations comprised of educators, parents and community leaders — are seeking more substantial increases.

“PA Schools Work has proposed increasing school funding by $2.3 billion this year, including at least $1 billion for Basic Education Funding, along with sizable investments in special education, school facilities, career and technical education, and the Level Up program directed to the 100 most underfunded school districts," the organization said in a statement. "We look forward to working with legislative leaders and Governor Shapiro toward that achievable goal in this year’s budget.”

In the Senate, where Republicans maintain a 28-22 advantage, many lawmakers are hesitant to go in that direction.

Citing a desire to protect the commonwealth's $5 billion Rainy Day Fund, GOP legislators have urged caution. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said his caucus is seeking a combination of fiscal restraint and an expansion of school choice that would assign tax dollars to students, not school districts.

"Obviously every dollar we spend is a dollar we can't save," he said. "I think it's very important that we embrace that notion that parents have the responsibility for their child's education. How we deliver education in this commonwealth has to be addressed."

A portrait of Senate Republican Majority Leader Joe Pittman.

The environment vs. energy

In regard to the conflicts between environmental and energy interests, Shapiro again avoided policy specifics.

"We must reject the false choice between projecting jobs and protecting our planet," he said March 7. "I believe we can do both — we can embrace the commonwealth’s role as an energy leader, create good-paying jobs, and fulfill our constitutional obligation to protect Pennsylvania’s clean air and pure water."

Power PA Jobs Alliance, a coalition of labor and energy industry interests, was among those critical of the governor's address.

"Just last week, our grid operator PJM Interconnection warned of future blackouts caused by state and federal policy, like the $800 million per year RGGI tax, which will cause the premature closure of reliable, baseload electric generation from coal and natural gas," the alliance stated in a release. "Given candidate Shapiro’s oft-stated skepticism regarding RGGI, and its impacts on blue collar union jobs and low- and fixed-income families struggling to pay historically high energy prices, we were cautiously optimistic Governor Shapiro’s proposed budget would distance himself from his predecessor’s mistakes, not memorialize them."

Pittman agreed.

"I was disappointed," he said. "The governor has certainly shown a reluctance to (embrace RGGI). That reluctance led me to be surprised to see that the budget still assumes over $600 million of additional revenue that will ultimately come from every consumer in Pennsylvania."

Long days ahead?

This budget, like most others in the political realm, is the opening bluff of a sometimes prolonged negotiation.

As Shapiro pointed out in his address, voters sent a mixed set of voices to Harrisburg. They elected another Democratic governor, kept Republicans in control of the Senate and built a blue-leaning House split as close to 50/50 as possible.

There were high points for officials on both sides of the aisle.

Democrats were happy with his continued support for free school breakfasts and a renewed push to increase the state's minimum wage. GOP lawmakers applauded his calls for tax cuts and four new cadet classes to supplement the ranks of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Samuel Chen, a former congressional aide and assistant professor of political science at Northampton Community College, said someone as savvy as Shapiro isn't going to advertise the concessions he may be willing to make with either the right or the left seeking more from his budget.

"I think that was intentional," Chen said of certain omissions in the governor's speech. "He's at least proposed ideas that both parties can use as a negotiating chip at the table."

"There's room for negotiation. There's room for conversation."

Chen added that Shapiro's tone contrasted with the antagonistic relationship that former Gov. Tom Wolf had with this group: "I think he's put the Legislature at a better start than his predecessor had for quite a number of years."

A primary question is whether the governor's potential compromises will be enough for the Republicans who maintain leverage in the Senate. Pittman, for one, has stated a willingness to take these debates right up to the June 30 budget deadline — or perhaps beyond.

"If we're going to get anything done, we need to have those 26 votes in the Senate, 102 votes in the House and the governor to support the same initiative," Pittman said. "Our focus is making sure this is a common-sense budget that works for working families. When that budget becomes law is a secondary concern."

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.