HARRISBURG - Once again, a coalition of faith-based groups is holding its vigil at the Capitol before the governor's annual budget address.

That is because once again, as Gov. Corbett prepares to deliver his second budget Tuesday, the ink is red and the talk is of cuts.

"We want to remind the governor that a lot of people are struggling out here," said vigil organizer Stephen Drachler, executive director of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania.

There is also talk of a meeting of minds, at last, on proposals to impose a fee on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale - though everyone in the Capitol has heard such talk before.

Last year, declining revenue, loss of federal stimulus money, and higher employee health and pension costs brought sweeping cuts in state aid for education and social services. This year, with revenue projections dipping again - this month $500 million below estimates - a new round of cuts is expected.

School officials are holding out hope, at least, that the ax falls elsewhere this time.

Kirsten Page, a spokeswoman for Corbett, said his office would have no comment before Tuesday. But one thing is nearly certain: Corbett will stick to his campaign pledge to not raise any taxes.

Last year, he kept that pledge when he and the Republican-led legislature delivered the budget on time, with no new taxes, and with a total spending figure of $27.1 billion that was below the prior year's number.

It came with costs - namely, eliminating nearly $1 billion from aid to public schools and helping set in motion layoffs, program cuts, and local tax increases by school districts.

The expectation of cuts has ramped up pressure to finally enact an "impact fee" on natural gas drillers, a subject likely to take a prominent place in Corbett's address.

After a year of debate, the legislature and the governor are on the verge of agreeing on a fee proposal, said Drew Crompton, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). He did not provide details on the amount or how and where the proceeds would be distributed.

"There is not a deal yet, but I think there is a framework in place, where we have struck a balance," said Crompton, adding that legislative staffers and members of the Corbett administration planned to meet through the weekend with hopes of announcing a deal early this week.

Meanwhile, school officials, as well as county officials who administer many state-funded social-service programs, are hoping to see their funding levels left intact in the budget, even as costs increase.

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said that the 67 counties have tried to absorb recent state cuts, but that many areas have seen no program funding increases for a decade.

Now he fears social services may be hit harder this time to preserve education funding. "We have to be realistic about new revenues. We've heard lawmakers say 'We can't cut education' two years in a row," said Hill.

He said that past cuts have meant longer waiting lists for services such as drug and alcohol counseling, and that more reductions in state aid could threaten programs such as transportation for the elderly and disabled.

Leaders of the state's largest teachers' union say basic education funding may be spared further cuts this time. Even so, "we're apprehensive," said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 193,000 teachers and support staff.


Pennsylvania's 500 school districts are still stinging from the 2011-12 state cuts as they try to work out their own budgets with rising pension obligations - expected to jump by 40 percent this year - and increased health-care costs.

The economic picture is bleak for schools. Wealthier districts face the prospect of again raising taxes or cutting more programs or staff. Poorer districts are coming nearer to the once-unthinkable prospect of shutting their doors.

The beleaguered Chester Upland School District ran out of money in January before getting a court-ordered stopgap infusion of state aid. Last week a second district, in York, said it would not be able to meet its payroll after May.

In the wake of state cuts last year, all but 16 of the 63 suburban districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties raised taxes - but even that didn't stave off layoffs. In Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, roughly 5,500 school jobs were eliminated.

Down the road

In the Upper Darby School District - which cut its budget last year, laid off about 60 staffers, and increased taxes by 2.7 percent - officials are looking at a $12.5 million gap between projected revenue and expenses, and the likelihood of cutting more programs, Superintendent Louis DeVlieger said last week.

"The formula for success is the most professionals in front of the least students for the most amount of time," DeVlieger said. "Our recent budgets have run dramatically counter to that. We will suffer big-time for generations down the road if this continues."

On Tuesday in Harrisburg, the Interfaith Justice Coalition - which includes the Catholic Conference and Jewish Federation - will be staging its vigil, trying to call attention to the poor and vulnerable ahead of Corbett's budget address.

"We believe the budget is a moral document," said Drachler, a former legislative aide. "We hope the legislature and the governor come together to seek solutions to help people rather than break down in a partisan battle."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at aworden@phillynews.com, 717-783-2584, or @inkyamy on Twitter.

Angela Couloumbis of the Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau contributed to this article.