Late-night delay in Pa. House committee meeting spawns budget-related ire: 'It's disrespectful. It's irresponsible'

Ford Turner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette /

HARRISBURG — A top Republican lawmaker Tuesday night accused House Democratic leadership of poor management of the budget process as the business portion of a key committee meeting was delayed late into the evening, and it was unclear whether it indicated a snag in budget negotiations.

“It’s disrespectful. It’s irresponsible,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York and minority chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “The work environment in the Appropriations Committee has never been this bad.”

Mr. Grove spoke at mid-evening of the ninth day without a state budget. And his comments came moments after an unusually late 8 p.m. committee meeting — scheduled by Democrats who control it — was started, then quickly placed “at ease” by Chairman Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia. After that, Mr. Harris left the room.

It was unclear what the turn of events meant for the ongoing budget process. A spokesperson for the House Democratic majority leader, Rep. Matt Bradford of Montgomery County, said she did not know when they would return to the meeting.

The House Democrats and the Senate Republicans are the two key legislative factions in the negotiations. Earlier in the day, the top negotiator for Senate Republicans, majority leader Joe Pittman of Indiana County, said good progress was being made, but, “I continue to underscore nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in February proposed a $48.3 billion spending plan, and negotiations since then have involved the administration and leaders of the two key legislative factions. Many lawmakers have said education has been the most challenging piece.

Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Basic Education Subcommittee, said, “I think it has been a good year for leadership, in the House and Senate, working together. Hopefully, we will have something in the next few days.”

Tuesday night, Mr. Grove speculated there might be an impasse in the negotiations and criticized the House Democrats for what he called a lack of transparency.

Separately, the House Education Committee earlier in the day gave a strong thumbs-up to a plan to tie future increases in funding for the University of Pittsburgh and two other state-related universities to performance metrics set by a new council.

The bill passed the Senate last month with all but one Democrat voting against it. In the House committee on Tuesday, though, it was endorsed with a 25-0 vote.

The bill’s basic concepts are: 

• Creation of a five-voting member Performance-based Funding Council, with one voting member appointed by the governor and four by lawmakers. It would make recommendations for a new system to distribute funding to Pitt, Penn State and Temple universities using “performance-based metrics.” Lincoln University, the other “state-related” university, would not be affected.

• The money affected by the council’s work would only be “between 3% and 5% of the amount appropriated” in fiscal 2023-24 to the universities and any funding in future years that is beyond the 2023-24 appropriations. The rest of the money would continue to be appropriated to the schools as it has in the past. The appropriation amounts for Pitt, Penn State and Temple in 2023-24 were $151,507,000, $242,096,000, and $158,206,000, respectively.

• The council would pick no more than six metrics to measure the schools’ performances, from a list of suggestions in the bill. Those include four-year graduation rate of first-time college students; student retention rates; bachelor’s degree production per 100 full-time enrolled students; and the number of high school students who are dual-enrolled and the number of credits earned.

• If the council fails to deliver recommendations to Mr. Shapiro and lawmakers by April 30, 2025, the bill calls for the plan to instead be created by a group of state-level agencies.

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

Ford Turner: [email protected]