A state fiscal aid package once considered dead was revived yesterday when the US Senate voted to send states $16.1 billion to meet Medicaid payments and $10 billion to prevent layoffs of public school teachers.
The bill was resuscitated thanks in part to the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was able to corral 61 votes on the measure, and a belated push by the White House. Arne Duncan, Pres. Obama's Secretary of Education, commented: "It is a great vote for American children. It showed a lot of courage."
It was clearly a momentous occasion, as the House of Representatives decided to cut short its August recess and come back to D.C. next week to pass the Senate's version of the bill.
While the Medicaid payments to states will not be distributed till January 2011, the teachers' aid will be doled out almost immediately to bolster school districts preparing to fire thousands of teachers this month. If the House had decided not to come back early, the measure would have only passed in September, by which time school rosters would have been shattered by layoffs.
The bill is likely to pass through the Democrat-controlled House, and is considered an important political victory by the Obama Administation. In recent weeks, the White House had been coming under fire from union supporters who believed that the President was more interested in passing untested reforms than keeping teachers on the job and in the classroom. With this emergency teacher aid, the President protects his administration from that criticism.
According to unofficial estimates by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and other news sources, Pennsylvania will get around $600 million for FMAP (Medicaid) funds and possibly around $400 million for teachers' jobs. This is definitely some welcome news amidst press conferences and op-eds about the Commonwealth's severe budget crisis.
With $600 million of the expected $850 million coming in for FMAP funds, legislators in Harriburg will now only have to overcome a $250 million shortfall in the state's budget. Coincidentally, that is the exact amount of the basic education funding increase in the 2010-11 budget. Powerbrokers like GOP State Senator Dominic Pileggi have already been eyeing the basic education increase as an area to cut in order to balance the budget. Pileggi recently stated that basic education is "the only line of the budget that is a large line that received a substantial increase that is purely discretionary."
Will Gov. Ed Rendell and his fellow Democrats fight to protect the basic education funding increase? Will they find other cuts, or explore options to increase revenues so that continued investments in Pennsylvania's schools are not disrupted? These questions will surely be addressed, if not answered, in the upcoming weeks.