They came. They talked. They worried.

    Citizens in a break-out group discussing their concerns over the state's financial crisis
    Citizens in a break-out group discussing their concerns over the state's financial crisis

    About 100 citizens of the Philadelphia region gathered in the WHYY Civic Space Thursday night to discuss the worsening fiscal crisis facing their Commonwealth.  They were businessman and service providers, neighborhood activists, artists and young professionals.

    After spending an hour talking about their hopes and fears in breakout sessions led by a team from the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, they jotted down dozens and dozens of questions – some plaintive, some penetrating, some downright sarcastic – for the group of three state officials who had agreed to show up to be grilled on camera about how they plan to cap the current geyser of red ink in Harrisburg.

    The three were state Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia, head of the House Appropriations Committee, Sen. Jake Corman, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Donna Cooper, Gov.  Rendell’s normally feisty secretary for policy and planning.  Cooper was nursing a bad cold that evening, so her exchanges with Corman, the Republican who had accused Rendell of “budgetary malpractice” were more muted than you might have expected going in.  Also part of the panel, joining via satellite link from Capitol Hill, was U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr., who talked (and talked) about his hopes for the great wonders that the federal stimulus law will perform.

    The host was Nell McCormack Abom, who does the Smart Talk show out of WITF in Harrisburg. She did a good job of putting the citizen concerns in front of the legislators, though no one short of the Almighty could get a politician who has the floor and a camera trained on him from using 78 more words to answer a simple question than, under a strict analysis, might be deemed necessary.

    Nell got to ask only five of the citizen questions in their exact wording during the hour-long show (called Tight Times, Tough Choices and scheduled to debut on Channel 12 at 6 p.m., Sunday, May 3, with reruns through the month on the Y-Info channel) though in followups she covered the gist of probably a dozen others.

    So that’s why we thought we’d do a list of all the citizen questions generated for which handwriting and syntax were in any intelligible.  They range from the sweeping to the particular.  All of them share a deep sense of concern about how much wreckage the current revenue shortfall in the state budget might cause among needed services.

    Here are their questions:

    STIMULUS

    How can we make sure we spend the stimulus on projects and purposes that are sustainable, that won’t go away when the federal money goes away?

    Can we leverage the stimulus to improve broadband connectivity in rural and urban areas?

    What happens after the stimulus?

    How do we avoid shell games with stimulus funds, really using them for sustainable opportunities, not the same old “feel good” programs.

    How will you ensure that stimulus money is infused into the most efficient organizations, with transparency?

    SERVICE NEEDS/CUTS

    If you cut emergency management dollars by 50 percent, how can be Pennsylvania be prepared for epidemic, natural disaster or terrorism?

    How can funding be provided to veterans organizations to serve urban vet populations?

    What cuts in the arts and public broadcasting should we anticipate?

    With these cuts, how can you shore up the stability of the nonprofit sector, which represents 28 percent of the job base, and serves the most vulnerable?

    What does this budget do to funds available to combat hunger and homelessness?

    How might the budget choices you make move organizations to collaborate more on goals such as serving vulnerable populations?

    How can we ensure that people with autism and related development disorders continue to get needed services after graduation from high school?

    How will money be allocated to improve child-care services?

    Where is affordable housing in this whole budget process?  We haven’t heard a lot about it from the governor or in the stimulus law.

    FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY

    Is there some way we can get the legislature and governor to craft a long-range vision for the state that extends further than the next election, so tough budget decisions could be made according to that vision, rather than the tactics and politics of the moment?

    How can you mitigate the polarization in the General Assemly (which always seem to end up hurting Philadelphia and other urban communities)?

    Philadelphia has PICA as a fiscal watchdog. What does the state have, to force it to plan for five years in the future?

    Will you vow tonight to finish the budget by the June 30 deadline, or at least promise that if you don’t, you’ll find a way to continue vital services to the state’s vulnerable populations?

    If it walks like a duck, it is a duck. The general assembly is still giving out walking around money grants. Will it ever stop this corrupting practice?

    How can you convince Pa. residents of the need to increase taxes?

    How can we identify the strengths of the state to identify alternative ways of generating revenue?

    What would it take for legislators to have an honest debate about we pay, through personal and corporate taxes, for the things we really value?

    Given the severe fiscal crisis, can we get a ban on the state spending money on purely discretionary capitol projects?

    PRISONS

    Wouldn’t increased funding for addiction treatment actually reduce the every-increasing costs of incarceration?

    Do any of you have any ideas to reduce prison population while keeping Pennsylvanians safe, or will prison costs just go on eating us alive?

    Is the current budget crisis on opportunity to reduce our prison population – and the huge associated costs?

    ENERGY/GREEN POLICY

    How will you ensure that federal money meant to produce so-called green jobs really does that in Pennsylvania, in an equitable way?

    How can we develop a new energy industry in Pennsylvania?

    How would you balance the interests of energy (coal and natural gas) and the environment (clean air, clean water)?
    What programs do you favor to spur clean-coal technology?

    EDUCATION

    Will this budget continue to fund the education subsidy formula recently agreed upon, or will that be another broken promise to our children out of Harrisburg?

    What can you do on the state level to ensure that additional education money gets spent in ways that increase the ability of state residents to get and perform jobs that pay a living wage?

    How will state government serve the needs of low-literacy adults, helping them develop relevant job skills?

    What are you doing to ensure that special education needs are met?

    I am a mother of a fifth grader. Please offer examples of how the state budget you favor would impact the opportunities she will get.

    What is the state’s position on whether the federal stimulus money for school districts will supplement state subsidies, or replace them?

    PENSIONS

    Isn’t it time to consolidate school districts, municipalities and their pension plans – because the costs of sustaining them have become intolerable?

    What are you dong to take care of the state’s future pension obligations, or will Pennsylvania end up like GM and Chrysler?

    RURAL/URBAN DIVIDE

    Is there some way that the budget could address the rural/urban economic and cultural divide, rather than just worsening it?

    HEALTH CARE

    Are the decisions being made in Harrisburg regarding health care funding and access to care being aligned with the health care reforms coming out of Washington, D.C.?  Who should we look to help with the problem of the uninsured – the state officials here tonight, or Barack Obama and the people in Washington?

    How can we ensure that single people will have health coverage?

    Does this budget prepare Pa. for the upcoming health-care reforms coming out of Washington?

    ELDERLY

    Pennsylvania has many elderly citizens, who are especially vulnerable in these economic times.  How are their needs going to be met and their interest protected during all this budget cutting?

    How can we pay for the future long-term-care needs of the state’s many elderly?

    When will the state equally fund home- and community-based services to help seniors stay out of nursing homes?

    Pa.’s biggest resource is skilled senior citizens. If there a program to hire seniors?

    Can we make the distribution of funds to Area Agencies on Aging more equitable?

    MASS TRANSIT

    Why not build the mag-lev train connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? Our group felt that would be a worthy and lasting legacy from the stimulus?

    How can we balance the need to maintain aging highway and transit infrastructure with the need to build a new, smart transportation system for the 20th century?

    JOBS/ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

    How can the state become more entrepreneurial when the deepest cuts are targeted at economic development?

    Why not create a public works program to provide jobs and lift people out of poverty?

    How will you ensure that the job creation and training programs funded by the stimulus have a life beyond the next two years?

    What can the state do to foster non-agribusiness farming?

    With economic development funding cut, how is the state going to help and promote small businesses?

    What is the state leadership’s vision for developing and sustaining new industries that can increase tax revenues?

    What can we do to make Pennsylvania a younger state?

    Considering that many people are now not able to retire, what can we do to create job opportunities across the lifespan?

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