Nearly 50 years ago Pennsylvania's government made a fundamental promise relative to its role in providing care for those with mental health problems. The state gradually would close most of its mental health institutions but earmark funds for less expensive but more progressive community care options.

The Corbett administration began to back away from the promise with significant cuts last year for mental health services. If Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget passes this year, that promise would be all but broken at great cost to mental health clients, their families and taxpayers.

Under current law the state specifically funds seven categories of social services through county governments and contracted agencies. Mr. Corbett would convert all of that funding into block grants for each of the commonwealth's 67 counties, with a 20 percent reduction in overall funding. County commissioners then would determine how much each service would receive from the block grant, creating the prospect that, for some agencies, the cuts could exceed even the 20 percent envisioned by the governor.

Lawmakers should reject the idea. It would force local social service agencies to compete with one another for funds and introduce local politics into the distribution of money for crucial services, while conveniently shifting the political fallout for service shortages from the state government that is creating them to local officials.

The impact on people who depend on the services could be devastating.

Deep cuts would increase homelessness, institutionalization and, inevitably, incarceration - the most expensive and least effective option.

In 1966, acting on abundant research and informed by a history of failed institutionalization, Pennsylvania embarked on a better course. The proposed budget is a road map to the bad old days that should be rejected by the Legislature in favor of adequate funding for mental health programs and other vital social services that are crucial not only to clients, but to every community in Pennsylvania.