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Pennsylvania's budget deadline looms: Here's what's at stake

A large government building with a green circular roof.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA

After weeks of debate and posturing, the state legislature returns to the Capitol this week ahead of a June 30 deadline to pass a budget.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $48.3 billion budget proposal calls for many things — including more public education funding, skill game regulation and taxation and investments in human services to lower wait times for those needing help.

Here is a rundown of what is at stake with some topics.

Public education funding

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal calls for around $1.1 billion to be invested in basic education. That is almost twice what last year’s $567 million investment called for.

In February 2023, the Commonwealth Court ruled Pennsylvania’s system of funding public schools was so bad it was unconstitutional.

Schools are funded by both the state and the local district, but the district spends more.

This means schools in poorer parts of the state have less to work with than wealthier ones, creating inequity.

Nearly one year after the ruling, the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission voted to adopt a Democratic planto overhaul the system.

In a March interview with WITF, Education Secretary Khalid Mumin said he would not budge from Shapiro’s proposed amount because the commission had identified financial inequities within schools.

Schools would stop receiving funding after June 30 if Shapiro’s proposal does not pass.

The commission’s recommendation made its way into a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, which passed the House on June 10.

Over seven years, it would funnel an additional $5.1 billion into underfunded school districts.

Last year’s budget process was halted over disagreements on a $100 million school voucher program that was endorsed by Senate Republicans and criticized by House Democrats.

Shapiro initially supported the proposal but ultimately line-item vetoed it to avoid an impasse.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said, after last year’s debacle, his caucus would focus on strengthening the role of parents.

“Obviously, we all know that that objective was not successful last year,” he said. “But the reality is that that effort last year has certainly set expectations within our caucus that empowering parents needs to be a key part of this conversation relative to the expectations of additional funding in the public education space.”

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Skill games

Gov. Josh Shapiro wants skill games — cash-paying electronic game terminals resembling casino machines — to be a part of budget negotiations this year.

The industry, dominated by Georgia-based Pace-O-Matic in Pennsylvania, avoids state gambling regulations and taxes by relying on strategy, rather than luck, to win a return. The legality of the games is a constant source of debate in the state.

Many restaurant, bar and corner store business owners say that skill games are keeping them afloat in the post-COVID era. And skill games providers claim that their products are not gambling devices and thus do not fall under the oversight of gambling laws.

The state Supreme Court will soon take on a case deciding whether electronic game terminals found in Pennsylvania corner stores actually require skill to win.

The lack of oversight has created what Senate Majority Leader Joe Pitmann, R-Indiana, called “the Wild West.”

Several bills seeking to regulate, tax and even ban skill games await movement in the state House and Senate. Operators for Skill, a Pennsylvania political action committee seeking to regulate the industry, has contributed more than $32,000 to state representatives and their committees since April.

Some lawmakers are hoping that budget negotiations will give those regulations life. Pittman said if skill game regulations aren’t considered soon, the topic might become a non-starter.

“The parlors that we see opening up are unregulated, untaxed, not secure,” he said, “and I think we’re sitting on a public safety powder keg if we don’t address it.”

Human services

Speaking to reporters last week, Pittman said human services funding, particularly in healthcare, has held up some talks, but not because of partisanship.

“We consistently hear from provider groups, particularly in the health care field, that they’re really struggling to have a labor force available to meet the demands of the services that they provide,” he said.

He added that the intellectual disabilities, nursing home and home health care parts of the budget are big parts of that conversation.

Shapiro’s proposed investments in those areas could help cut wait times and ensure those in need of services receive them as soon as possible.