Capitol Beat

13 things to know about the PA budget and other bills passed by lawmakers in December

Lawmakers finished 2023 by finalizing a budget and honoring Taylor Swift.

Gov. Josh Shapiro and state legislative leaders in December 2023.

Gov. Josh Shapiro and state legislative leaders in December 2023. Commonwealth Media Services

It may have taken a few more months than usual, but Pennsylvania’s state budget is finally complete after a flurry of legislative action from lawmakers to end the year. 

In addition to sending Gov. Josh Shapiro the final outstanding pieces of the state budget during a year-end legislative sprint from Dec. 11-13, legislators took action on a resolution honoring Berks County native Taylor Swift, while sending several other measures to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Here are 13 things to know about the finalized state budget and other measures approved by lawmakers in the General Assembly during the final session week of 2023.

1. The budget is complete

Signed into law nearly six months after it was due, thanks to the signing of two School Code bills and a Fiscal Code bill, the state budget is complete, with millions of dollars of state funding now able to be released to recipients across the state. 

Speaking at a press conference with legislative leaders on Wednesday night, Shapiro said he chooses to view the completion of the budget and other legislative initiatives as a big win for the state, despite the longer-than-usual timeline. “I feel wonderful that we were able to come together in a bipartisan manner to make this happen to not only close out a budget in the strong way we did, but to add on to that to get meaningful things done for families – the child care tax credit; to be able to do some meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system, something we’ve been talking about for years – and we got it done,” Shapiro said.

“I think it’s important to note that we learned how to work together,” Shapiro said.

2. Libraries and community colleges get their funding

Two of the entities caught in the state’s lingering budget impasse were community colleges and libraries, which both awaited the approval of budget-implementing legislation needed to distribute the funding. 

With the passage and governor’s signature of House Bill 301 – a School Code bill approved sent to the governor on Wednesday – $70.47 million for public library subsidies will now be released, and $261.6 million from the General Fund will be distributed to community colleges in the state.

3. Student teacher stipends

HB 301 also brings a new student teacher grant program to Pennsylvania. The law, which will be known as Act 33 of 2023, established the Educator Pipeline Support Grant Program, which will provide $10,000 grants to student teachers and $15,000 grants to student teachers who teach in schools with high turnover. 

This fiscal year’s budget allocates $10 million for the program, which will be administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

4. Educational tax credits are expanded

The final budget bills approved by state lawmakers this week included a key priority for Republicans in the General Assembly – an expansion of tax credit programs designed to provide students in low-performing school districts with scholarships to attend private schools.

HB 301 expands the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program by a total of $130 million while also expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program by $20 million.

It’s not the private school scholarship program that Republicans were hoping for over the summer, though Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said at the press conference Wednesday that the Senate Republican Caucus is “very appreciative of the fact that we made a historic investment in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.”

5. Penn veterinary school funding fails to advance

In the latest in a series of blows to Pennsylvania’s Ivy League institution, a bill that would have allocated more than $33 million to the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school failed to receive enough votes to reach the governor’s desk.

In the wake of controversy at the university over its policies regarding antisemitism, two efforts to approve the veterinary school funding failed to receive a vote from two-thirds of the state House as required. 

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, said he wanted to see more from the university before voting in support of the funding. “The resignation of the former president of the university for her remarks is a good first start, but until more is done for the university in terms of rooting out, calling out and making an official stance on antisemitism being against the values of the university, I cannot in good conscience support this funding,” Cutler said on the House floor.

6. Lawmakers create a grant program for school environmental repairs

Tucked into HB 301 is language for a new competitive grant program to drive out funds to schools that need to make important repairs to their facilities. The grants could be put toward the abatement or remediation of several types of environmental hazards, including asbestos, mold and lead contamination. 

According to a House Appropriations Committee bill analysis, the language in the bill only establishes the framework of the program, meaning the funding will come later. 

7. Pennsylvania will fund indigent defense for the first time

Pennsylvania lawmakers passed an omnibus Fiscal Code bill – House Bill 1300 – that features a number of changes to state law. It includes $7.5 million in funding for indigent defense, which refers to criminal defense services for people who can’t afford legal representation.

Shapiro proposed $10 million for indigent defense in his budget proposal in February and, with the $7.5 million secured in this year’s budget, Pennsylvania will offer state funding for indigent defense for the first time. 

The language in HB 1300 creates the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee within the Pennsylvania Commission of Crime and Delinquency, as well as an Indigent Defense Grant Program designed to supplement county spending on indigent defense services.

8. Saving for a rainy day

This year’s state budget puts a total of $898 million into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which was music to Pittman’s ears. 

“We’re very thankful that we were able to conclude this process while maintaining our fiscal stability. We need to remember that we made a historic transfer into a rainy day fund of $900 million,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference. “We now have a rainy day fund that allows us to be prepared for an inevitable rainy day, and that long-term fiscal stability will continue to be a hallmark of our Senate Republican majority.”

9. The state’s 911 surcharge is increased

The Fiscal Code legislation also extends and increases the state’s 911 surcharge from $1.65 to $1.95, which is expected to generate an additional $60 million in revenue per year for 911 services. 

Shapiro proposed an extension of the surcharge in his 2023 executive budget proposal, as the surcharge was set to expire next year. The new increased surcharge is set to go into effect on March 1, 2024, and a bill analysis from the House Appropriations Committee estimates that the increased surcharge will generate $392 million per full fiscal year. 

10. Lawmakers expand Child and Dependent Care Enhancement Tax Credit

HB 1300 also expands the Pennsylvania Child and Dependent Care Enhancement Tax Credit Program, increasing the amount state taxpayers can claim from 30% to 100%. 

“We’re taking a huge bipartisan step to ease the cost of child care for families by dramatically expanding the Child and Dependent Care Enhancement Tax Credit in Pennsylvania. You see, under current Pennsylvania state law, Pennsylvania would match only 30% of that federal child care tax credit. Now, thanks to the bill that I’m about to sign, we will match it 100%,” Shapiro said Wednesday night, before offering an example of what the expansion could mean for Pennsylvanians. 

“That means for a low-income family with two kids and child care – their refundable state tax credit will increase from a current maximum of $630 all the way up to $2,100,” Shapiro said. 

11. Police, crime and criminal justice reforms

The Fiscal Code bill increases the trooper cap for the Pennsylvania State Police by 100 officers, raising it from 4,310 to 4,410. 

On Dec. 14, Shapiro signed a number of bills seeking to both reform the state’s criminal justice system and crack down on crime, including House Bill 689, an expansion of the state’s Clean Slate initiative, which: 

  • Extends the automated sealing of criminal records to those with low-level, nonviolent drug felonies with a maximum sentence of 30 months 
  • Allows petition-based sealing of records for certain nonviolent felonies, including criminal mischief, criminal trespassing, theft and forgery
  • Reduces the waiting period for automated sealing of misdemeanors from 10 years to 7 years

He also signed a probation reform bill sponsored by GOP state Sen. Lisa Baker, Senate Bill 838, as well as a bill from Democratic state Rep. Dan Williams, House Bill 863, that lowers the minimum fitness requirement for enrollment in the Philadelphia police training program. 

Shapiro signed another bill from Democratic state Rep. Morgan Cephas, House Bill 900, which sets parameters around the use of restraints on pregnant or postpartum people who are incarcerated, establishes restrictions on body cavity searches at for incarcerated pregnant or postpartum individuals and requires that menstrual products be provided for free at state and county correctional facilities. 

The governor also signed Senate Bill 527 from GOP state Sen. Frank Farry, a bill that aims to crack down on porch pirating by creating a new “Theft of Mail” offense in state law. “With online shopping being a growing method of commerce, package thefts have been on the rise nationwide. It’s time to hold these thieves accountable,” Farry said in a statement. “This bill focuses on repeat offenders by using a grading system that would increase the penalties if the thief had prior convictions for theft of mail.” Shapiro also signed Senate Bill 596, sponsored by state Sen. David Argall, which creates a first-degree felony offense for organized retail theft and gives the state attorney general the power to investigate and prosecute organized retail theft. 

And in a move that has irked Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the governor signed legislation from state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, Senate Bill 140, that tasks the attorney general with appointing a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute crimes on SEPTA in Philadelphia.

12. Shapiro, legislative leaders comment on divided government

In a year that was marked by friction and division, Shapiro and legislative leaders took time to speak about divided government in Harrisburg. 

“We are the only state in the nation with a divided legislature – one chamber led by Democrats, one chamber led by Republicans – and that presents challenges. It also requires us to compromise,” Shapiro said during his press conference with legislative leaders on Wednesday. “And when we do accomplish things like we did as a result of these lawmakers’ hard work over the last several days, when we move the ball down the field, it’s important that we celebrate that, and that we focus on the progress we’re making.” 

Pittman also weighed in on the new dynamic in Harrisburg this year. “Yes, we have a divided government. We have moments of disagreement, and our Senate Republican caucus will not be shy whenever we have those moments of disagreement,” Pittman said. “But we will also continue to look for ways to reach agreement in a divided government on issues that affect real Pennsylvanians across this commonwealth.”

House Speaker Joanna McClinton said the bipartisan progress that surfaced at the end of 2023 bodes well for next year. “This is a truly exciting moment for our commonwealth for us to wrap up this year’s budget, and most importantly, see it as the pathway forward to all the things that we can achieve next year,” McClinton said.

13. Taylor Swift enters the chat, and Pennsylvania enters its Taylor Swift era

In what turned out to be a more contentious vote than one might expect, House lawmakers took some time away from the state budget to vote on a resolution honoring Berks County native Taylor Swift, who was recently named Time Magazine’s 2023 person of the year. 

The vote elicited a range of reactions – from frustration over spending time on a ceremonial measure, to praise from state Rep. and resolution sponsor Danielle Friel Otten, who called Swift “a veritable cultural and economic force.” The resolution even got GOP state Rep. Russ Diamond to try his hand at a rendition of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

The resolution ultimately passed with a 103-100 vote, because ‘tis the damn season, at least according to Time Magazine.