HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf issued his first veto of the year Tuesday, spiking a bill that would have greatly expanded a tax credit program that benefits scholarship programs used to cover private school tuition.
House Bill 800, authored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, would have doubled the amount of tax credits available for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit while also raising the income limits for families to be eligible for scholarships covered by the program.
Under the plan, the state would have offered up to $210 million in tax credits and allowed families earning $95,000 to benefit from the scholarships funded by those donations.
The measure passed the state Senate last week, after passing in the state House last month. The legislation didn’t pass with enough support in either chamber to suggest there are enough votes to override Wolf’s veto.
In his veto message, Wolf said that the tax credits for private schools lacks accountability and oversight.
“We have public schools that are structurally deteriorating, contaminated by lead, and staffed by teachers who are not appropriately paid and overstretched in their responsibilities,” Wolf said. “Tackling these challenges, and others, should be our collective priority.”
Turzai said Tuesday afternoon that he’s “immensely disappointed” by Wolf’s veto.
The speaker said 50,000 scholarship applicants were turned away last year because of limits on the EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit is directed to help families in poorly-performing school districts. The EITC program is available to students anywhere in the state.
“The notion that we are neglecting our public schools is disingenuous,” Turzai said. “Rather, we have increased investments in public education K-12 to record levels. What we have neglected to provide is adequate support for those families who are looking for an alternative choice.”
Between state and local tax revenue, Pennsylvania spends $32 billion on education funding, Turzai said, adding that the amount spent on schools is “set to be increased further in the upcoming budget.”
Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the church, said the group will continue working to get similar expansions of the program passed, despite Wolf’s move.
“We are disappointed with the governor’s decision to veto a long overdue expansion of Pennsylvania’s important EITC program, given that so many families are on a waiting list to receive help,” Failing said. “EITC provides parents with the opportunity to choose schools they believe are best for their families.”
Charles Mitchell, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Harrisburg, said that Wolf attended a private school that now “charges $60,000 in annual tuition,” but the governor’s veto will prevent thousands of children from low and middle-income families from affording private schools.
“Tens of thousands of students are desperate for scholarships that represent an escape hatch from schools that aren’t meeting their needs,” Mitchell said. “Gov. Wolf’s veto slams the door on students’ opportunity to obtain an education that will set them on a path to success.”
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said that the income limits are increased based on family size, so the program expansion would have benefited families with as much as $125,000 in income. Education Voters of Pennsylvania is a Harrisburg-based group that lobbies for increased school funding.
“Governor Wolf was correct to veto HB 800, which proposed to provide $100 million in additional taxpayer-funded subsidies to families that earn more than twice the state’s average income,” she said. “If lawmakers have an extra $100 million to spend on education, they should allocate it to public schools to help reduce pressure on property taxes and to help ensure that students’ mental health, safety, and academic needs are met,” she said.
Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said that previous increases to the tax credit programs have been in smaller increments.
The $100 million increase proposed in HB 800 seemed “over-the-top,” he said.
In addition, the legislation would have provided automatic yearly increases that would cause the amount of tax credits available through the program “to balloon” in the coming years, DiRocco said.
“We just believe that it’s time to delay these increases in these tax credit programs,” he said.
“That’s less money in the general ledger and that means less money for the basic education subsidy and the special education subsidy” for public schools.