ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: Trying to fill a budgetary hole
HARRISBURG - That Pennsylvania faces a difficult road ahead to enact a balanced state budget for fiscal 2014-15 no one disputes.
The main problem is that Pennsylvania faces an estimated $840 million revenue hole out of a $28 billion budget. Cost increases for public pension contributions and medical assistance that are unavoidable are outpacing anticipated growth in state tax revenue.
The legacy of earlier state spending cuts adds to the challenges facing Gov. Tom Corbett and state lawmakers as they try to fashion the next budget.
A reminder of this came when the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania called last week for restoring the $86 million, or 10 percent, cut in state aid to county-run human services programs made in 2012. The commissioners asked to have the cut restored over a three-year period.
This cut occurred as the Corbett administration started a new state human services block grant program. Thirty of the 67 counties are now in the block grant program, including Lackawanna, Luzerne, Schuylkill and Wayne counties in Northeast Pennsylvania.
The commissioners are big boosters of the block grants as a way to give them flexibility and ability to shift funds to provide a range of human services. Programs addressing community mental health, mental disabilities, dependent children, the homeless, substance abuse and welfare-related issues are under the block grant.
Commissioners favor giving the remaining counties the option of joining the block grant program if they choose. But they made it clear as they outlined 2014 priorities that flexibility and innovation only goes so far.
"Counties have done everything possible to make programs more efficient and to streamline operations," said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick. "But it is clear that for counties to continue serving a growing population in need, human services funding levels must be restored to FY 2011-12 levels."
A newly renovated website for the General Assembly has earned an "A" grade from the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit group promoting government transparency.
But a search of www.legis.state.pa.us last week failed to yield any of the legislative audit reports issued annually by the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission.
These reports have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years because they disclose the size of the uncommitted legislative surplus. The report showed a $140 million surplus in fiscal 2011-12.
Lawmakers say a surplus is needed to operate the Legislature in case of a future budget stalemate with the governor. But critics have questioned keeping a surplus when many state programs have been cut in recent years.
Lawmakers are now moving to post the audit reports on the website.
The public can offer suggestions for this website by using the Twitter hashtag #PAGAwebsite.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.