Pa. begins to miss education, human services payments as budget impasse continues

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Nearly a month after Pennsylvania lawmakers failed to meet an annual budget deadline, bills are coming due for education and human services expenses that state officials do not have the authority to pay.

Because of the ongoing impasse, the commonwealth is on track to miss major payments in the coming weeks. These include regularly scheduled disbursements to public schools and to a slew of county-administered services, most notably child welfare programs.

While state officials have the authority to continue making many regular payments during periods in which there is no enacted budget, these areas are critical outliers.

Public universities, community colleges, special education programs, and day care and preschool programs all missed tens of millions of dollars in payments in July, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In August, $1.1 billion in basic education funding to public schools is also expected to be missed.

Counties are bracing to miss payments from the state in the last week of July and the first week of August, said Lisa Schaefer, who heads the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and advocates for county governments’ interests.

Along with child welfare programs, which include investigating alleged child abuse, these payments go toward what Schaefer calls the “core services that counties provide,” like community-based mental health and substance abuse services, assistance programs for unhoused people, and flexible Human Services Developmental Fund programs like meals on wheels, or transportation assistance.

Disbursals for these key programs typically follow a two-month schedule, Schaefer said, which means October payments are also in jeopardy.

Schools and county programs can typically weather short impasses using reserves, though specific financial realities vary greatly between district, county, and program. But when the commonwealth goes without a budget for much longer, many of these organizations must consider cutting services or taking out loans — an especially daunting prospect given high interest rates.

It’s unclear how much longer the budget impasse will continue.

Both the state House and Senate have passed the main budget bill, but it lacks a needed signature from the upper chamber. Without that signature, the bill is unable to go to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk for final approval.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) has kept the chamber out of session for a month. She and other Republicans claim Shapiro betrayed them by backing a private school voucher program then pledging to line-item veto it to win over House Democratic support.

The state Senate isn’t officially scheduled to be back in Harrisburg until mid-September. However, Ward said in a TV interview taped on July 21 that she plans to reconvene her members at some point in August, which would likely forestall many missed payments.

“There will not be an extended budget delay,” she said. “I know that they’re trying to scare people into thinking that they’re never going to get their money, but that’s not true.”

A spokesperson for Ward said a week later that the chamber still aims to reconvene in August.

“Senate Republicans needed time to determine the best way to move forward with a governor who has lost our trust,” Ward spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright told Spotlight PA. “The quickest and best path forward has not changed and that is for Gov. Shapiro to keep his word and sign the budget as passed without vetoing scholarships.”

With an exact return date still unavailable and the precise conditions of the state Senate’s return unclear, officials who administer or oversee education and county-level spending are sounding alarms.

  • July 31, 2023
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