Budget restoration debate takes off
HARRISBURG - While higher education, basic education and county-run human service programs benefit mainly from state aid restoration efforts so far, advocates for a host of other programs are competing to join that group now that state tax revenue collections are improving.
Public libraries, agricultural programs and the Keystone Fund, which helps pay for local park and conservation projects, also get money to offset proposed cuts in the $27.6 billion state budget bill for fiscal 2012-13 approved by the Senate last week. The measure overall restores $500 million of spending cuts proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in February when the state's fiscal picture was more dire. He presented a $27.1 billion budget. But not all cuts are being restored under the Senate bill. The governor's proposal to cut funding for general assistance cash grants for the poor by $160 million and child care subsidies for the working poor by $8.7 million remain in it.
The House Appropriations Committee will take up the budget bill later this month. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, said education and county-run programs for mental disabilities are the top restoration priorities for his caucus too. But Turzai noted his caucus is split on whether $27.6 billion in spending is acceptable or if a smaller amount would be better. Corbett is skeptical about whether $27.6 billion can be supported with revenues during an uncertain economy.
And the Senate budget draws criticism from others who consider it a glass half empty.
"It is still a losing proposition for Pennsylvania's seniors, students and people with disabilities because it does nothing to relieve the fiscal pressure the last (fiscal 2011-12) GOP budget is putting on our hospitals, schools, nursing homes and counties right now," according to a statement by the House Democratic Appropriations Committee at week's end.
Examining one area, the Senate bill blocks additional cuts the governor proposed for supplemental payments to hospitals. This includes restoring $3 million for hospital neonatal and obstetrics services. But House Democrats said that move doesn't alleviate the 24 percent cut for supplemental payments contained in the current budget.
"The budget continues to cut services and shift costs to local taxpayers while continuing tax breaks we cannot afford," said the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a Harrisburg think tank which has opposed spending cuts as the main solution to the state's fiscal problems.
The next six weeks will bring debate over spending items large and small.
Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, voted for the Senate budget, but he and other colleagues hopes that state tax revenues will improve enough this month to allow for more restorations. The senator wants to ensure The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton is guaranteed funding in next year's budget. TCMC had its own budget item for several years, but it receives about $2 million this year through a Department of Public Welfare appropriation for academic medical centers. The Senate bill provides $12.6 million for this particular item, restoring $1.3 million of Corbett's cuts. Blake wants to put a provision in the accompanying fiscal code bill that spells out TCMC's eligibility for state aid.
Sen. Larry Farnese, D-1, Philadelphia, voted against the Senate budget on grounds it doesn't go far enough to restore proposed cuts. He singled out one small item - providing $2.56 million for a cancer screening program, reflecting a $26,000 cut from current levels - as being of concern.
Even a $26,000 cut can mean less early detection of cancer, Farnese said.
The Senate bill restores state aid for regional poison centers, trauma programs and programs dealing with epilepsy and Tourette Syndrome. But House Democrats say it provides no funding for a state diabetes management program.
House Democrats said the Senate bill benefits businesses while people suffer and doesn't cap the state sales tax vendor discount for businesses despite Corbett's call to do so. House Republicans would like to add a few business cuts such as lifting a cap on what companies can write off on prior year operating losses to the final bill, said Turzai.
He said the goal is to enact the budget well ahead of the June 30 deadline.
"People want a sense of predictability so they can move forward with their own budgets," added Turzai.
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