Budget concerns linger
BY STACI WILSON
Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-14 budget shows some increases in spending over the budgets of the past two years.
But with 160 line times that used to be in the state budget that are no longer there, those increases do not represent a restoration to previous levels of funding,
That was the message Thursday afternoon from Tony Ross, of the United Way of Pennsylvania, during a town hall style meeting and panel discussion held in Montrose.
Representatives from local service agencies and area school districts gathered to discuss the potential impacts of the proposed state budget and the federal sequestration to their agencies.
Pete Tartline of the Governor’s Budget Office presented an overview of the proposed state budget, highlighting initiatives and proposed increases to certain programs.
Tartline said the governor’s 2013-14 budget included increases in public education and human services programs for the elderly and disabled.
Ross said the governor’s proposal amounted to only the beginning of the budget process and was not necessarily what would be adopted in June.
Ross also spoke about the potential $300 million impact sequestration will have in the state to Title I, WIC and early intervention programs.
Panelists Carla Mitchell of NEPA Community Health, Erin Griguts of Headstart, and Robert McTiernan, superintendent of Blue Ridge School District also spoke about the state and federal budget impacts.
Mitchell said that as a federally qualified health center, NEPA Community Health provides care to medically underserved areas and persons. NEPA Community Health Centers do not operate as a free clinic. Customers are expected to pay what they can afford for services, Mitchell explained. For example, if a medical test costs $100 and a person can only afford to pay $25, they are charged that $25 and the remainder of the cost is reimbursed as a Federally Qualified Health Center.
As a not for profit, the center also receives some funding from the United Way.
Mitchell advocated for the state to accept the Affordable Care Act to enable the expansion of Medicaid services.
“People do access services when they can’t afford care,” she said. “This would give them access to preventative care and bring more people in to receive health care.”
She said the agency is planning for a four to five percent sequestration budget cut. With 30 percent of the budget coming from federal dollars, Mitchell said she did not expect a five percent cut of 30 percent to be “catastrophic.”
Headstart’s Gringuts said sequestration would keep about 70 children from being able to attend the early learning education program.
But on the state budget side, she said the agency was pleased with the governor’s proposed budget increases.
Gringuts highlighted Headstart’s evolution from an early learning program to its current family-services work in addition to the education program.
Gringuts advocated for an expansion of the Pre-K Counts program in Susquehanna County. While Headstart limits its enrollment to children whose families fall below the poverty level, Pre-K Counts allows for enrollment of children with families at 300 percent of the poverty level.
As the superintendent of a rural school district, McTiernan spoke to issues that impact the school’s budget including the cost of health care and pensions and the cyber-charter school funding formula.
McTiernan said the budget increase to basic education was an increase only on paper.
He said Blue Ridge has had to offset a $68,000 loss of stimulus money over the past two years; and with other cuts, the district is down over $100,000.
McTiernan called for a change to the cyber-charter school subsidy formula. He said he was concerned that the money spent by school district taxpayers for the cyber schools was not actually reflective of the cost of those students’ education.
The superintendent said that generally public schools out perform cyber-charters in every area. “Children enroll in cyber-charter schools, and we get the bill,” he said.
McTiernan also said that funding for special education had been flat for the past six years but contractual obligations increased over those years.
He said Blue Ridge has worked to being programs it was outsourcing back to the district.
Over the past two years, cuts in Blue Ridge have had little direct impact on programs for students. But sequestration, McTiernan warned would cut money from the budget that could not be made up with a tax increase without going to the voters.
“Going forward it will impact students,” McTiernan said with increase class sizes and other cuts to programs.
During his presentation, Tartline reviewed Pennsylvania’s revenue streams and budget allocations. Over half of the state budget goes to fund basic education (34 percent) and medical assistance (22 percent).
He also spoke about Governor Corbett’s Passport for Learning initiative – a prospective, one-time windfall stemming from the privatization of the state liquor system.
Passport for Learning dollars could be used in four areas: school safety, early learning programs, individualized learning programs and STEM programs.
The sale of the liquor system would also end the “contradiction” of the state being both the regulator and enforcer of liquor laws but also the marketer of liquor.
McTiernan said he would was concerned about a one-time revenue infusion but would “welcome the dollars” for infrastructure improvements used for school security.
“I would hesitate to hire people with that money,” he said.
Tartline also addressed the need for pension reform in the state. With about $41 billion in unfunded liabilities in the two state pension systems and rising year over year costs, he highlighted benefits of moving from a defined benefit plan for newly hired workers to a defined contribution plan for new state employees.
He said that move could result in a savings of $175 for the state and $138 million for school districts.