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Rendell cuts now too deep for GOP

Some lawmakers are angered by proposed budget cuts for agriculture and parks conservation.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell had barely uttered the closing lines of his budget address this month when Republican lawmakers pounced on him to cut deeper.

But during budget hearings this week, GOP lawmakers from some rural areas were singing a decidedly different tune. Now they are angry at Rendell because he wants to cut into their sacred cows: agriculture and parks conservation programs.

In the House, Rep. Gordon Denlinger, whose Lancaster County constituents farm some of the most productive cropland in the nation, said he was concerned that the state's largest industry was being unfairly targeted.

"Ultimately, we need a more balanced approach," said Denlinger, who sits on the Appropriations Committee. "Year-after-year cuts indicate a lack of support by this administration."

Denlinger's sentiments were echoed yesterday on the other side of the Capitol, where Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff responded to questions from Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee about proposed cuts to a number of programs, such as animal-health research, crop insurance and local fairs.

"I don't know how I can vote for the budget unless there's a restoration of these budget lines," said Sen. Michael W. Brubaker (R., Lancaster). "I am outraged and embarrassed that the commonwealth is not serving the needs of the state's number-one industry."

And Rep. Richard R. Stevenson (R., Monroe) decried annual cuts in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' budget that have left Moraine State Park in his district with less staff.

"I'm not advocating spending more, but spending more wisely the dollars we have," said Stevenson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He said the state needed to look at ways to raise revenue in parks from private investment or expanding the drilling of oil and gas wells.

Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny County) said the Republicans' sentiment reflected "reality meeting ideology."

"Someone's wasteful spending is someone else's critical priority," said Frankel, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I would call it lack of understanding; others might call it hypocrisy."

Rendell announced his $29 billion budget on Feb. 4, with 4 percent cuts across the board to address a projected multibillion-dollar budget deficit. Some departments - such as agriculture, with a 14 percent reduction in its appropriation - took a harder hit.

Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said the goal was to "target cuts and reductions that did not directly impact the health, safety and welfare of Pennsylvanians."

Frankel said he believes the Republican grousing about overspending will reach a crescendo when Department of Public Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman appears before both appropriations committees next week.

The agency, which receives the biggest slice of the budget, is getting a slight increase, from $9.1 billion to $9.6 billion, to respond to growing costs for medical care and larger numbers of people needing other types of assistance.

"You'll hear a different tone," Frankel said. "They will characterize it as 'just welfare' when it is largely medical assistance for the disabled, elderly and working poor."

Republican lawmakers say they will continue to try to ferret out wasteful spending or ineffective programs in every agency.

"It's about budgeting priorities," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson). "The welfare budget has grown exponentially in this administration."

Rendell's spokesman said the outcry from Republicans did not surprise him. "Much of the whining is coming from members who have built their careers attacking government spending," he said.