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January 12, 2009

Officials sound off on state budget

CRESSON — A state budget being pulled apart by falling revenues and increased demands will have to be tackled on two fronts as well: Pay more, get less.

That was the upshot of a forum on the impact of the recession on the state budget held Monday night at Mount Aloysius College. It was chaired by House Appropriations chairman Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia.

A deficit of between $1.6 billion and $2 billion will have to be made up in both the 2008-09 and the 2009-10 budget years, officials said.

The $750 million Rainy Day Fund will evaporate next year.

“We have to define what expectations do we have of state government,” Evans said.

“I’m trying to talk about collective responsibility,” he told the crowd of 80 school, health, business and municipal leaders along with a smattering of students.

Evans – with Cambria County’s lawmakers at his side – said instituting taxes on the extraction of energy such as natural gas and coal is being considered to ease the crisis.

He wanted to know the thoughts of rural Pennsylvania because that’s where cutbacks will hit hardest. He got them:

• Ebensburg borough Manager Dan Penatzer said the Legislature needs to force school consolidations and undo tedious PennDOT and state environmental rules.

• State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said the state should look at eliminating mandatory jail terms for small-time drug offenders. He said drug treatment is much cheaper than $18,000 a year to hold someone in state prison.

• Ed Sheehan, head of Concurrent Technologies Corp., wanted to see the tax system revised and said, “I would encourage us to act boldly.”

• Union leader Terry Havener said, “There’s a term that I don’t hear that I’d like to hear – consumer development.” He said good-paying jobs and health care will infuse the economy with money.

Gov. Ed Rendell will present his budget Feb. 3.

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