HARRISBURG — Spring is the season of pushback in the Capitol. The governor's spending plan is on the table, and invariably there are groups unhappy about its contents.
With steep cuts proposed by Gov. Corbett in education and social services, the chorus of voices has grown louder this year — no fewer than a dozen rallies are scheduled in the Capitol this week alone — as the June 30 budget deadline looms. So, too, has the response by lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, who think Corbett's "tough choices" budget cuts too deeply in the areas of education and social services.
In back-to-back protests on Monday, hundreds of sign-wielding citizens called for an end to property taxes, while hundreds more demanded the restoration of funding for cash assistance. On Tuesday morning, groups are to gather to ask the General Assembly to restore mental health funding, while nurses rally to protect services for the elderly.
Better-than-projected revenue estimates now suggest some of the pain may be avoidable. With that in mind, the Republican-controlled Senate showed its hand Monday, proposing a $26.65 billion budget that restores nearly all funding ($245 million) to higher education and half of the funding ($85 million) to county-run social service programs.
"This reflects the revenues we have today, rather than those projected in February" when Corbett submitted his $27.1 billion plan, said Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre). "But it has the same level of fiscal responsibility and sense of what the governor wants accomplished."
The Senate version would also restore some funding to early-childhood education. The Senate Appropriations Committee will vote on the bill Tuesday, and final passage is expected in Senate on Wednesday, Corman said.
Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman, called the Senate's numbers shortsighted. "The Senate proposal clearly is not sustainable beyond the 2012 fiscal year," Harley said. "It would move the state farther away from achieving a goal of long-term structural balance."
So the stage is set for negotiations to begin in earnest. And though the House and the Senate, as well as the Governor's Office, are all in GOP hands, that doesn't mean talks will be smooth — one unpopular proposal is Corbett's plan to eliminate millions in funding for the state-related universities — Temple, Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania State — and some Republicans are speaking out against plans to sharply pare back programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled.
Between now and June 30, legislators are expected to debate how much, and where, some of those cuts should be restored. Earlier this year, the administration had predicted the state would close the fiscal year with a $719 million shortfall. But tax collections in recent months have been better than expected, resulting in a smaller year-end shortfall — which lawmakers will surely pounce on as they seek to restore money to favored programs.
Sharon Ward, executive director of the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center Center, said the state is likely looking at a surplus of as much as $800 million next year, rendering many cuts unneeded. "There is no reason to inflict this level of pain on schools, colleges and people who are vulnerable," she said.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) has said that when looking for areas to restore money, the top priorities would be K-12 education, colleges, and mental health programs. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has said his caucus basically agrees. Pileggi has also said that he hopes to have the budget done early this year — something that hasn't happened in more than a decade.
On Monday, hundreds of representatives from the PA Cares Coalition, which includes social service agencies and churches, held a noisy rally in the Rotunda, carrying signs that said "End the War on the Poor" and chanting "Restore" and "Shame" as speakers ticked off the list of programs to be cut or zeroed out. Among the programs that Corbett wants to eliminate is so-called "general assistance," which provides temporary aid of $205 a month to 68,000 Pennsylvanians who are disabled, caring for a disabled person, or victims of domestic violence.
"These are programs that work. They provide a safety net, a lifeline, a bridge to self sufficiency," said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. "Without them, more people will be forced to live on the street."
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said that protecting state support for the most vulnerable was not a "partisan issue" and that he would fight to restore the cuts. "I will do everything I can to get every penny of that back in the final budget," DiGirolamo said.
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