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Pennsylvania governor seeks billions for schools and development in budget that envisions legal weed

Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his budget address for the 2024-25 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.
Matt Rourke
Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his budget address for the 2024-25 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Josh Shapiro’s second budget proposes significant increases to education and economic development and would regulate adult use marijuana, while leaning heavily on Pennsylvania’s flush reserves to underwrite his vision.

The Democrat on Tuesday unveiled his budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, in front of a joint session of the House and Senate in the ornate Capitol Rotunda, watched over by a heavy police presence.

Referring to his inaugural spending plan as a “down payment” on his vision for Pennsylvania, Shapiro called on lawmakers to enact his projected $48.3 billion budget to inject more cash into underfunded public schools and attract major industrial and high-tech projects to invigorate a slow-growing economy.

Speaking to lawmakers, he acknowledged his plan was ambitious.

“I know that’s a bold vision, and some will reflexively be opposed, saying, ‘We can’t afford that,’” Shapiro said. “But I would argue we can’t afford not to invest right now.”

Much of Shapiro's plan will face stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, criticized the spending as “absolutely fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable.”

Democrats who control the House applauded Shapiro's plan. The chambers will begin budget hearings in two weeks.

With a nod to his burgeoning catchphrase, Shapiro called on lawmakers “get more stuff done.”

A hefty investment to public schools is a cornerstone of his proposal, which comes in the wake of a court ruling that found Pennsylvania's system of school funding unconstitutionally discriminates against poorer schools.

Shapiro wants a $1.1 billion, or 14%, increase to public schools, meeting a school funding commission's recommendation last month supported by his appointees. A significant portion, about $872 million, of that would go toward helping poorer schools, a proposal which drew enthusiasm from public school advocates and teachers’ unions.

Shapiro also wants more funding for student-teacher stipends, mental health counseling, special education and school construction, as well as money to put menstrual hygiene products in schools.

Shapiro said his plan would deliver another $2 billion to public schools, when combined with savings from tighter limits on charter school reimbursements.

“This is ambitious," Shapiro said to Democrats’ applause. "None of this is easy and all of it will require us to work together.”

However, he also reiterated his support for a private school voucher program — a proposal that is backed by Republicans, opposed by Shapiro's fellow Democrats and that helped precipitate a monthslong budget fight last year.

Shapiro’s spending request would increase total authorized spending by 7% through the state’s main bank account, while tax collections are projected to increase by $1 billion, or 2%. The budget proposal holds the line on taxes, and instead uses about $3 billion in reserve cash to balance.

The proposal would shrink the state’s cash reserve from $14 billion to $11 billion, while public schools, higher education and human services would absorb much of the increase in spending.

With his “competitive spirit” in mind, Shapiro wants to catch up to other states that are ahead of Pennsylvania.

As a new revenue stream, Shapiro wants to legalize adult-use marijuana, following the example of neighbors Ohio, New Jersey and New York. Shapiro’s administration estimates the industry would eventually yield $250 million in additional annual revenue. He also called for expunging records of those incarcerated for marijuana, and using $5 million for restorative justice.

To bolster students continuing through post-secondary, Shapiro’s budget allots an extra $200 million, or 10%, more for the state’s higher education institutions, an acknowledgment that Pennsylvania lags nearly every other state in funding higher education. The extra money would come with a reimagined state-owned higher education system that distributed aid based on transparency and performance-based measures.

Beyond a continued push for a $15 minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana, Shapiro wants legislators to fund economic development projects to attract major industrial and high-tech businesses to cultivate a more dynamic workforce. He proposes borrowing $500 million to go toward site development, to better entice industrial and tech businesses to choose Pennsylvania.

“We need to build a more competitive Pennsylvania that starts in our classrooms, runs through our union halls and our small businesses, through our farmlands and our high rises, our college campuses, and leads to a life of opportunity and a retirement with dignity,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro’s proposal would boost spending on home and community services for the intellectually disabled and autistic by about $200 million, or 12% more. That’s about half the amount that advocates say is needed to fix a system beset by staffing shortages, low pay and long waiting lists.

Another significant investment would go to public transportation, increasing state aid by about $280 million, or about 20%. More than half of that would go to the Philadelphia-area Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA.

Shapiro also wants to send $31 million more to help the Pennsylvania State Police maintain and update its fleet of vehicles and aircrafts. The proposal comes after prison escapee Danilo Cavalcante eluded hundreds of law enforcement officers for two weeks.

Specifically targeting gun violence, an additional $1.5 million would increase staffing of state troopers and civilians by auditing gun retailers and monitoring social media for threats. He pushed for the Senate Republicans to act on legislation sent to them by House Democrats to strengthen gun laws.

To curb youth-based gun violence, Shapiro wants about $23 million to increase after-school programming for adolescents, and to dedicate resources to cleaning up shared spaces like parks and recreation areas that he said are most affected by gun violence.

Smaller line items target housing needs, such as home repair subsidies and those facing eviction to have legal counsel, and health care programs, including funding to prevent hospital closures and lower medical debt, prescription drug prices and the cost of health insurance.