Shapiro signs into law bipartisan budget, ending long impasse

Citing a “commonsense budget,” Gov. Josh Shapiro signed into law Thursday afternoon a bipartisan budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year. 

Agreement on the $45.5 billion appropriations bill (HB 611) ended an impasse dating to the original June 30 deadline. 

The Shapiro Administration said that the budget delivered on the governor’s priorities of creating a stronger economy, safer and healthier communities, and better schools. The 2023-24 budget invests in children’s education, supports businesses in part by accelerating permitting, helps other adults remain in their homes, strengthens and protects communities, and seeks to make certain law enforcement and first responders have needed resources. 

Shapiro also plans to sign into law on Friday an expansion of the Property Tax/Rent Rebate, aimed at easing the burden of rising costs on Pennsylvania seniors. 

“The people of Pennsylvania have entrusted me with the responsibility to bring people together in a divided legislature and to get things done for them – and with this commonsense budget, that’s exactly what we’ve done,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Throughout my campaign and in my first budget address, I laid out a vision for how the commonwealth could create real opportunity and advance real freedom for all Pennsylvanians. 

“With this budget and the expansion of the Property Tax/Rent Rebate, we’re making good on that promise by delivering the largest targeted tax cut for our seniors in nearly two decades, creating real opportunity for our workers by expanding vo-tech and apprenticeship programs, supporting our state troopers and local first responders, and making historic investments in our kids and their schools. This is what it looks like when government works together to make Pennsylvanians’ lives better.” 

Lieutenant Gov. Austin Davis said the bipartisan budget addresses Pennsylvanian’s desires for state legislators to “take off the red and blue jerseys” and put on a Pennsylvania jersey. 

“This budget addresses the most pressing issues facing our communities and delivers real results for the people of Pennsylvania,” said Davis. “It’s a direct investment in making our economy stronger, our communities safer, our schools better and our families healthier.” 

Shapiro line-item vetoed the full $100 million appropriation for the PASS scholarship program.

Highlights of the budget include:

  • Largest increase in basic education funding and historic investment in Pennsylvania schools. 
  • Investments in community and economic development. 
  • Investments in Pennsylvania agriculture. 
  • Increasing access to apprenticeships and vocational and technical education. 
  • Improving Pennsylvania’s permitting and licensing processes. 
  • First-time funding for indigent defense. 
  • Repairing infrastructure and supporting law enforcement. 
  • Investments in mental health, addressing maternal mortality, and supporting EMS and health care providers.

The latter has been criticized by the Pennsylvania Health Care Association (PHCA), which issued a press release Thursday morning stating that the budget’s focus is education funding, leaving seniors and adults with disabilities and those requiring specialized nursing care to be overlooked. Health providers across Pennsylvania have warned legislators that a lack of funding could lead to a collapse of the state’s long-term care system.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) on Wednesday night called the Senate back to session at 1 p.m. Thursday to “negotiate in good faith” and finalize the bill.

Signing HB 611 will provide the necessary funding to schools, counties, and organizations completing 75% of the budget,” Ward stated. “The remaining 25% of the budget requires legislation to authorize expenditures. Gov. Shapiro has provided us the necessary assurances to guarantee the monies for those programs will remain untouched until the legislature has finalized the language.”

New PIDA loan approved to spur business growth in Bucks County

A new $375,000 low-interest loan to support business expansion for Bucks County manufacturer First Look Display Group, LLC, has been approved through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA). 

The loan approval was announced Wednesday by Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Secretary Rick Siger. 

“PIDA loans are one of our key economic development investment tools and are vitally important to companies looking to grow, retool, or retain and hire additional workers,” Siger said in a statement.

First Look Display Group was approved for a 15-year loan at a 3.5% reset interest rate to assist in the purchase and renovation of their currently leased operational space in Bensalem Township. Founded in 2018, First Look Display Group, LLC designs and manufactures metal racking systems for a variety of uses, including point of purchase displays in retail environments and as storage units in industrial environments.

The company will also make renovations including full replacement of the roof, and installation of three overhead doors and ancillary dock equipment. First Look Display Group, LLC has committed to retain 11 current jobs and create three new, full-time jobs within three years.

Low-interest loans and lines of credit are provided by PIDA for eligible businesses that commit to creating and retaining full-time jobs, and for the development of industrial parks and multi-tenant facilities. PIDA loans can be used for land and building acquisitions, construction and renovation costs, machinery and equipment purchases, working capital and accounts receivable lines of credit, multi-tenant facility projects, and industrial park projects.

Businesses in Pennsylvania eligible to apply for PIDA loans include agriculture, construction, child daycare, manufacturing, industrial, research and development, hospitality, defense conversion, recycling, computer-related services, mining, retail and service enterprises, and developers.

Carbon County project receives funding from Shapiro Administration

A Carbon County project is among the eight new projects receiving more than $3 million in funding through the Commonwealth Financing Authority, the Department of Community and Economic Development announced Tuesday. 

The projects provide funding to strengthen Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry and improve the state’s infrastructure. The grants and loans total $3,048,636. 

“Investments in projects like these approved recently will help make the Commonwealth a better place to live, work, and prosper,” Secretary Rick Siger said in a statement. “From bolstering our agriculture industry to making critical infrastructure improvements, these projects will grow our economy and improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians.” 

The Pipeline Investment Program (PIPE) provides grants to construct the last few miles of natural gas distribution lines to business parks and existing manufacturing and industrial enterprises, which will result in the creation of new economic base jobs in the commonwealth while providing access to natural gas for residents. Applicants eligible for PIPE funding include businesses, economic development organizations, hospitals, municipalities, and school districts. 

Little Leaf PA, LLC, on behalf of UGI Utilities, Inc., was approved for a $501,136 grant for the installation of 3,000 linear feet of natural gas pipeline in Banks Township, Carbon County. The installation will allow for additional capacity of the gas line to support the future expansion of Little Leaf from 20 acres of greenhouse to 60 acres of greenhouse. 

Little Leaf uses their greenhouses for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) lettuce growing and this increase in production would result in at least 300 new jobs for the local community and increase the natural gas capacity through the construction of a new gas regulation station for the Smithfield Gateway Center in Smithfield Township. The total project cost is $1,02,272 and UGI Utilities will provide matching funds in the amount of $501,136. 

The First Industries Fund (FIF) provided $2,547,500 to strengthen the state’s agriculture and tourism through loan guarantees. Land and building acquisition and construction, machinery and equipment purchases and upgrades, and working capital are all possible uses for funding.  

Projects in Lancaster, Northumberland, and Perry counties received FIF loans. 

PA House passes Shapiro spending plan, ending impasse, and spurring debate

The Pennsylvania House approved a new, bipartisan $45.5 billion state spending plan late Wednesday night. 

But passage depended on Gov. Josh Shapiro persuading the Democratic-controlled House with a pledge to line-item veto his proposal to use public money to fund vouchers to private schools, a priority favored by Republicans. 

Shapiro’s pledge was issued Wednesday afternoon, the governor stating that he wished to avoid plunging Pennsylvania into a “painful, protracted budget impasse.” 

The bill was approved in the chamber by a 117-86 vote, with every Democrat voting in favor and 15 Republicans joining them. The bill now heads to Shapiro’s desk and is expected to be signed in the coming days since it achieves many of the goals he addressed in his March budget proposal. 

“A budget is a statement of our priorities – and with new investments in students, teachers, seniors, moms, families, farmers, workers, cops, emergency responders, business owners, and more, this is a budget for all Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation with a full-time, divided legislature – meaning nothing gets done unless it can make it through our Republican-led Senate and our Democratic-led House. 

“I’m proud that this budget – one that makes historic investments in public education, public safety, workforce development, agriculture, and economic development – passed both the House and Senate, and I look forward to signing it.” 

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Phila., said that while the budget is not perfect, it makes investments in Pennsylvania’s most important resource – its residents. 

“Budgets are statements of values and House Democrats showed that we value education and working people and that we want to build a state that is safe, with good jobs and boundless opportunity,” Bullock said. 

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster likewise pointed to positive aspects of the spending plan. 

“It increases funding for career and technical education, workforce development programs, public safety, and property tax relief while maintaining our commitment to supporting public education, the PA State System of Higher Education, and increasing funding for Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship tax credit programs,” Cutler said. 

“It increases support for our Rainy Day Fund, spends less than what the governor originally proposed, and is considerably more reasonable than the unilateral budget passed out of this House about a month ago by the Democrats on a straight party-line vote.” 

Cutler added thar the budget also has elements that cause concern. 

“For instance, it does little to address our structural deficit and runaway and unaccountable welfare programs, which if not addressed, will threaten the long-term ability of our state to genuinely prosper,” Cutler said. 

Investments in agriculture, community and economic development, education, public safety, and workforce development are all included in the budget, along with the second-largest increase for basic education since 2015-16. 

The plan represents an increase of 5% over last year’s approved budget, and the total spending figure would be several hundred million less than what Shapiro originally proposed. It’s also $1.7 billion less than what the House passed in June. 

Pennsylvanian’s two main sources of income, sales tax and income tax, are not increased under the new bill. 

School vouchers represented a prime area of contention, some $100 million being allocated for a program that would help pay for students to attend private or religious schools. Those in favor of the program believe it allows students to travel to schools of their choice, while critics see it as taking money away from public schools and using it for private schools. 

Initially in favor of this first-ever voucher program, Shapiro on Wednesday afternoon stated he would line-item veto the full $100 million rather than hold up a budget impasse that was in its fifth day. 

Republican lawmakers see the voucher program as a top priority, and it served as a key to a budget deal between the democratic governor and Republican-controlled Senate which led to passage in the Senate on June 30. The program is largely opposed by Democrats, school boards, and teacher unions. 

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, on Wednesday accused Shairpo of “backtracking on a handshake deal.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin issued a joint statement that Shapiro “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached, leaving tens of thousands of children across Pennsylvania in failing schools.” 

The spending bill is also less than what many Democrats had hoped for, as Majority Leader Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, noted. 

“Sure, I think there’s missed opportunities, but on balance, I think it moves the Commonwealth forward,” Montgomery said.

Berks mushroom grower lays offs 161 workers

Donna Bella Farms will stop operating its mushroom-growing facilities in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, laying off 161 people, a large number of whom – if not all – will be offered new employment.

That total includes 123 direct hires and 38 employees from a temp agency working at multiple transient locations who will be laid off as of June 30, according a Worker Adjustment and a Retraining Notification filing with the state Department of Labor & Industry. Donna Bella Farms’ primary address is 5A Mountainside Road, Temple.

All employees have been notified; none are represented by a union.

Donna Bella Farms, which is being dissolved, is a joint venture 50% owned by Giorgi Mushroom Co. and 50% by Monterey Mushrooms.

Joe Caldwell, president of Giorgi Mushroom, said in a phone interview that the current business climate, in which demand for mushrooms is low, prompted the decision. He said the growing rooms Bella Donna uses are owned by Giorgi or Monterey.

They are shut down temporarily and will re-open when demand improves, he said.

The WARN letter said Giorgi Mushroom “will continue and perhaps expand certain mushroom-growing operations currently undertaken by GMC at DBF’s locations. GMC currently anticipates that employment opportunities will be provided to a substantial number of DBF employees.”

An HR team from Giorgi is meeting with workers this week, Caldwell said. “I really expect the vast majority of (Bella Donna) employees will come on board.”

Giorgi Mushroom Co.’s website said the company “is a vertically integrated, family owned and operated agribusiness in Berks County. … GMC is the largest, single-location mushroom farm in the world, producing over 180 million pounds annually of the Agaricus bisporus varieties: White Button, Portabella, Cremini and Shiitake mushrooms. Our operations span 3.7 million square feet of growing space across six farms and 468 indoor growing rooms including several organically certified operations.”

A joint venture with Monte Blanco, the largest mushroom grower in Mexico, provides Giorgi Mushroom with 400,000 square feet more of growing capacity to service its Southwest U.S. markets with freshly picked mushrooms.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer