Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Joanna McClinton (Delaware/Philadelphia) talked about her 2023 accomplishments and 2024 goals during a panel with state officials from Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee on Wednesday.
McClinton was part of a video session conducted by NewDEAL Leaders – a national network of select, pro-growth progressive state and local elected leaders – and the State Democracy Action Fund – which provides the education and skills needed to connect everyday people with their state government – talking about the state’s legislative preview for the new year.
Also on the four-person panel were state Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Tenn.), state Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Fla.) and state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Conn.).
“We are carrying into 2024 the priorities that I call ‘unfinished business’ that is left from 2023,” said the Speaker. “The first and most important thing we are working on as a caucus is education. We have been tackling and blocking a controversial voucher program from last year’s budget and it certainly is not going away with our upcoming budget cycle.”
The Basic Education Funding Commission made its recommendation for the state government to spend $5.4 billion to close the funding gap between richest and poorest schools, something that McClinton supports.
“We have to find and spend about $5 billion to finally have a fair funding system so that all children in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are able to access great education and to get them the opportunities that they want as they grow into their lives.
“In addition to making better schools in our areas, we want to have better jobs, better opportunities, drawing industry and creating jobs,” she continued. “We were able to just pass at the end of last year an earned income tax credit (EITC) for people who are paying for childcare. That is one of the biggest expenses my friends, constituents, and others have every month.”
McClinton spoke to the Commonwealth’s $7.25 minimum wage, noting that every state around Pennsylvania – New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, as well as the GOP-controlled states of Ohio and West Virginia – all have a higher minimum wage.
“We’re hoping that the Senate will take it up this year. That will be very important.”
The issue of gun control reform has vexed the state legislature with Democrats promoting more controls and Republicans blocking most measures.
“We in state capitals have the responsibility to do everything possible to keep what would be weapons of war out of the average person’s hand,” said McClinton. “The House sent two bills over to the Senate last year that we’re hoping they will send back to us and we can get to the governor’s desk.
She also spoke to election integrity in the 2020 presidential election which has been called into question by Donald Trump and his supporters.
“It’s 2024 … we want to continue to defend democracy. We want to make sure that we are dispelling any conspiracy theories and making sure that everybody has faith in their right to lift up their voice and participate in the elections this year.”
McClinton, the first female Speaker of the Pennsylvania House, did tout some of her and her caucus’ accomplishments in her first 12 months in the position.
“We’ve been able to work with Governor Josh Shapiro to have automatic voter registration for everybody that goes down tp get their ID or their license,” she said. “It expands the the electorate. It will start to dispel the conspiracy theories.”
“For the first time in many years, we have a surplus in our rainy day fund (where the state safeguards reserves for potential economic downturns) to the tune of $6 billion. That would have never happened if we did not get several billion federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan funding.
“And I’ll just remind everybody, that when we said we had a portion of Interstate 95 collapse that, thanks to President Biden’s leadership, we were able to get that highway restored in 12 days and that was because federal government was able to send money to get that work started immediately.”
Divided Government and Education
McClinton did address the challenges faced in the Keystone State with a Democratic-majority House and a Republican-controlled Senate, especially when it comes to education.
Per Section 123(k) of the Public School Code, the 2023 Basic Education Funding Commission, created by the governor, was charged with reviewing the distribution of state funding for basic education to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and providing a report of its findings to the General Assembly.
“First and foremost thing that we have as a priority is to make sure that we’re fulfilling our constitutional obligation,” said McClinton. “Every state does not have this, but Pennsylvania’s Constitution tells the General Assembly that we must provide every child a thorough and efficient public education. So public education is our No. 1 priority.
“Our appellate court made it very clear what all of us knew, which is we were unfairly and unconstitutionally funding schools where some schools are getting more money, even though they have a lot less students, and other schools that have a lot more students with very specialized needs are not getting enough support from the state.
“The Basic Education Funding Commission has told us we need to find $5 billion, create the revenue, spend some of the money from the rainy day fund, to get these schools on the right track. That is the priority. Our caucus in the Pennsylvania House has been very open to the topic of school choice. That’s why every single year there has been more funding for other school choice programs.
“Pennsylvania has a very robust EITC program which is tax credits for corporations to send money to nonprofits or private schools or faith based schools to get scholarships,” she said. “And also we have an Opportunity Scholarship Program for lower-income families to be able to get access to scholarships to send their children to schools of their decision and their choice. So we already have school choice. It’s very robust.
“We’re hoping to get some more accountability from the largest program (EITC) and most importantly, recognizing that even with the Senate being controlled by Republicans, is we can’t ignore the decision the Commonwealth Court made a year ago. We have an obligation on the Constitution to first move on with money we owe districts before talking about adding a new controversial school choice program that will not serve enough children.
“That’s what it all comes down to. Every child has to have an opportunity. We can’t say 20 kids now will get a new scholarship. That’s not meeting the need.”