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June 10, 2014

Groups keep fingers crossed over scramble to balance budget

HARRISBURG — Advocates and government agencies are chewing their fingernails as legislative leaders and the governor’s office scramble to close a $1.3 billion budget gap.

The stakes are high. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed millions of dollars in aid for various groups, including families waiting for services for intellectually disabled loved ones; state police counting on money to hire more troopers; and public schools still strained by years of reduced funding.

Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor hasn’t given up on funding those and other efforts, which were initially included in his $29.4 billion budget.

“The governor clearly articulated his priorities,” said Pagni. “Discussions are continuing. We will work toward a balanced, responsible budget.”

But Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said there won’t be money for Corbett’s agenda without closing the gap, which appeared as tax collections came up short.

“The current revenue picture would suggest that none of those would be done, and indeed we’re going to need to go back into the budget and make real cuts if there is no desire to look at alternatives to fill in the shortfall,” Zogby told The Associated Press.

Sheila Stasko, associate director of the PA Waiting List Campaign, said she’s being a realist despite Corbett’s pledge in February to spend an extra $22.4 million on services for 1,100 people with intellectual disabilities.

“We are cautiously optimistic. But we are looking at it with common sense,” said Stasko. “It’s just a nasty budget.”

Stasko said more than 3,000 Pennsylvanians have moved from the waiting list into programs since Corbett took office in 2011. About 4,000 families remain on an emergency waiting lis, meaning they need services immediately.

In March, The PA Waiting List Campaign and The ARC gave Corbett an award for championing families of those with disabilities.

Nancy Murray, president of ARC of Greater Pittsburgh, said advocates felt good about the governor’s interest.

“We felt pretty safe. We know we aren’t as safe now,” said Murray. “Anyone who has a stake in the budget should be worried about what is going to happen.”

In addition to money targeting the waiting list, advocates for the disabled were encouraged when Corbett called for $20 million more for special education funding for schools, said Stasko.

That’s in addition to $340 million he vowed to set aside for  extra school spending.

Those interested in protecting that money are marshaling support. A coalition of groups, including faith leaders and parents, rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday to call for increased school funding and a better way to allocate school dollars.

Similar protests sprouted in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on Monday as Corbett and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited those cities for fundraisers.

Six people were arrested at the Philadelphia protests, which attracted about 1,000 people.

About 200 people attended the rally at the Capitol.

“We’re asking for a full and fair funding formula, one that is more rational and less political,” said David Koppisch, spokes-man for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, which sponsored the rally.

Koppisch noted the funding struggles are not confined to the cities.

“This cuts across urban, suburban and rural Pennsylvania,” he said.

Many of those who attended hope to protect – or shore up – specific programs within the state school budget. For example, the Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, said the state must ensure schools are staffed with nurses.

Tyler pointed to the deaths of two students in Philadelphia schools blamed on the absence of nurses. A 7-year-old with a congenital heart defect passed out at school in May and later died in a hospital. A student died after suffering an asthma attack at school in October.

Philadelphia schools rotate nurses among schools to save money. “You don’t want to get sick on the day the nurse isn’t there,” said Tyler.

Kristin Thomson, a Montgomery County woman who attended the rally, said school funding is critical to the overall economic future of the state.

“All children deserve excellent public schools,” she said.

Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said uncertainty over the budget means local school districts may be forced to adopt 2014-15 spending plans without knowing how much they'll get from the state.

If the state offers less than expected, local schools will have to reopen their budgets.

Students, teachers and school administrators aren’t the only ones who could be pinched by last-minute budget wrangling in Harrisburg.

State police are hoping for $13.7 million to add four new cadet classes in order to fill about 350 of 500 open trooper jobs. The first class is due to start in August.

State police Col. Frank Noonan told a House committee earlier this year the trooper vacancies were created because the state didn’t train any cadets in 2009 or 2010, while veteran troopers continued to retire.

State police spokeswoman Maria Finn said the classes won’t take place unless they’re funded, though she said there has been no discussion about canceling the August class.

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