Last year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett proposed more than a billion dollars worth of cuts. This year’s spending plan is more or less level.
But the $20 million the governor wants to take out of the budget have launched another round of rhetorical warfare.Republicans say it’s a no-frills budget, because with a projected $700 million deficit by the fiscal year’s end, there’s no room for frills unless the state raises taxes. Governor Corbett blames the austere plan on what his budget secretary calls “historical” economic circumstances. “Revenues do not match mandated, escalating costs. That means we must continue the course bravely charted by this assembly in the year just passed,” said Corbett. “I am submitting to you a budget proposal that is at once lean and demanding.” The governor is calling for double-digit percentage cuts to higher education — a proposed percent cut to the State System of Higher Education, which was reduced by 18 percent last year. And Corbett wants a 30 percent cut to three of the four state-related schools: Pitt, Temple and Penn State. For Penn State, that would mean a more than 60 percent reduction in state spending in the past two years. Deep cuts like that occasion a commission — there’s been one for transportation, privatization, Marcellus Shale. Those panels resulted in a whole lot of recommendations and not a lot of action.Corbett says the next commission will be for higher education to determine how to change the way it’s funded, and the way it serves students. “We need to have a thorough public and candid conversation about how to best deal with the spiraling costs and our own obligations,” said Corbett. The deadline for another set of recommendations is this fall.Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says lawmakers hardly have the “luxury” of having more funding to allocate to higher education. “I think the governor has very clearly indicated his focus, being more on K-twelve with level funding there,” said Pileggi. Kindergarten through twelfth grade education is seeing a slight spending increase in the Corbett’s proposal. The governor says schools districts would actually see about $20 million more in state money than they did last year.Public Welfare is another department that has seen major cuts in the past. Corbett’s planned reductions for the agency overall this time are modest. But he wants to get rid of state-provided cash assistance benefits and change eligibility requirements for medical assistance benefits to free up more than $300 million.Those proposals had Senate Appropriations Minority Chair Vincent Hughes, a Democrat, nearly howling. “If you are on the low rung of the economic ladder in Pennsylvania, this governor has his foot on your neck,” said Hughes. “Cuts in support for folks who are on medical assistance. Cuts in support for the cash assistance program. Cuts in support for folks who are just trying to make it through.”
Governor Corbett also used his budget address to signal his readiness to work with the Legislature to start planning to fix the state’s old and underfunded transportation infrastructure. “Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic,” said Corbett. “This problem has grown for the past several decades. It will not be solved overnight. But whatever the solution we enact, it must be a lasting one.” Representative Eugene DePasquale, a York county Democrat, says he was looking for more detail, not rhetoric.”What would clearly be the most bipartisan issue we could have in this legislature is increasing the investment in our roads and bridges,” said DePasquale. “It would put Pennsylvanians back to work at a good wage and prepare our infrastructure for the future. It is amazing after over a year in office, the most we got out of him was three sentences.” What comes next is a series of budget hearings as House and Senate Appropriations committees gather testimony from state agencies. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Bill Adolph says if the flat funding levels come as a shock, it’s because state spending under former Gov. Ed Rendell was out of control. “Unsustainable. We’re still only collecting revenues to the point of 2007-2008 levels,” said Adolph. He says he likes the parameters Corbett has set for the state’s budget, and thinks they keep undue burden off the commonwealth’s taxpayers. The governor says his plan is just a map for the negotiations that follow. But he’s dug in on one thing: the state must not spend more than it has.