Not too many cheers in Philly for on-time Pa. budget

    Pennsylvania has a new budget, delivered on time, for a change, by the General Assembly and Gov. Corbett.  That’s a trick Ed Rendell never managed to pull off.

    But some in this region are less than impressed about Harrisburg meeting its June 30 deadline, because they don’t like some of the choices baked into this $27.15 billion fiscal plan.

    Today, on Broad Street, protestors rallied outside Corbett’s Philadelphia office against cuts to health, education and public welfare services.

    As advocates dug into the details of what was approved Thursday night in Harrisburg, they found new things to worry about.

    Richard Weishaupt, senior attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, noticed that anyone unhappy with how the Department of Public Welfare manages its slightly smaller budget will have less chance than before to give input.

    First, a quick civics lesson. When a Pennsylvania agency plans to change its regulations, it publishes the new rules in a bulletin; the public gets to comment; they are reviewed by a regulatory commission made up of Democrats and Republicans; legislative committees weigh in. 

    Then, Weishaupt said, the lawmakers “make suggestions for changes or they say: It looks great, go with it the way it is. Or say: This is really a bad idea, don’t do it at all.”

    But, for the next year, the process for the Department of Public Welfare will be different.

    Department Secretary Gary Alexander will be able to make unilateral changes to some of the rules for how department programs run.  The public will have 30 days to comment, only after those changes go into effect.

    Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County explains the rationale:

    “It’s an expedited process. It will allow the department to operate more nimbly and more flexibly to achieve greater efficiencies. We can take advantage of that greater flexibility of the secretary to act in a shorter period of time.

     Weishaupt says no other department is structured this way: “Not an entire department across a wide variety of programs. That’s the unique thing about it and that’s the thing that’s most troubling. I think it’s a bad idea all around.”

    Take, for example, the welfare to work program. One potential change could be to limit how often someone can participate. Let’s say a woman finds a job through the program, then is laid off within the same year. 

    A possible scenario, Weishaupt worries, is that: “She’ll be told, ‘Well, you’ve already had the assistance in helping you find that first job. We will not help you any more but it still remains your obligation to find another job and if you don’t find another job completely on your own, we’re going to cut you and your child off.”

     Pileggi counters that the secretary’s increased authority may translate into savings:

    “What we’re hoping for generally in the Department of Public Welfare is greater efficiency, a reduction of error and fraud and greater benefit from the tax dollars that are spent in that department so that we can getting more services for the dollars that we’re spending.”

    The administration hopes that the department’s spending will decrease by about $400 million. 

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