Sen. Eichelberger Holds Town Meeting
Eichelberger focused mainly on the Pennsylvania Senate's recent passage of Senate Bill 850, which, if passed by the House and signed by the governor, would cut state spending in 2009- 2010 to $24.6 billion in state spending and $2.7 billion in federal stimulus funds. The state's 2008-09 operating budget is $27.7 billion and, according to Eichelberger, Gov. Rendell has proposed an increase in spending of $1.3 billion from last year or a budget of $29 million. Senate Bill 850 passed 30-20 on a party line vote and made substantial cuts, many very deep, to most of the budget's line items.
The senator explained to the nearly 30 people in attendance that the state's budget contains 694 lines. Of those budget lines, 64 were increased, 143 remained the same, 487 lines were cut and 229 were eliminated completely. He said that the proposed $27.3 million marks the first time he can remember a budget that calls for less spending than the previous year. The proposed spending would use stimulus funds to offset state funds rather than to increase spending; would maintain the state's $750 million Rainy Day Fund; proposes no tax increases; and maintains every cut proposed by the governor.
Eichelberger began his remarks by saying Pennsylvania faces an approximate deficit of $2.9 billion, because receipts continue to come in under projec- tions due to the economic downturn and also due to a loss in investments. "Pennsylvania's Constitution requires the budget to be balanced and passed by June 30," he said, "and if we don't act, things will only get worse, and it is important for all of you to know and understand."
He blamed the state's financial woes on three things: the loss of investments due to poor economic conditions; a significant pension increase in the last year of Gov. Tom Ridge's term; and the fact that the baby boomers are hitting retirement age by 2012.
In defending the Senate's proposed budget, Eichelberger said, "It isn't perfect, I don't agree with all the cuts, but I do know that the cuts were across the board - Agriculture took a hit, DCED (Dept. of Community and Economic Development) suffered massive cuts as did tourism, and public television was zeroed out." The Senate bill shot down Rendell's plan to tap the state's $753 million Rainy Day Fund and rejected Rendell's proposal to impose a 10-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and new levies on smokeless tobacco and natural gas reserves.
Now that the Senate Bill has passed, it will go to the House of Representatives, which, according to Eichelberger, has its own budget version and cuts are not believed to be as severe. In fact, Democrats in the House have said that the GOP spending plan contains draconian cuts that would jeopardize federal funds for healthcare and education, and harm hospitals, schools, the elderly, children and the working poor. According to published reports, it is unlikely the House will pass the Senate's bill as it stands.
Although the senator focused on the budget, others in the audience were anxious to talk about healthcare. A group of local Democrats asked Eichelberger to consider cosponsoring Senate Bill 400, a resolution introduced by Sen. Michael O'Pake (D-11), entitled Pennsylvania's Single Payer Universal Health Care Bill, also known in the House of Representatives as the Family and Business Healthcare Security Act. The legislation would provide single payer healthcare for all Pennsylvanians. According to Kathy Hendricks, the bill would mean a healthcare insurance savings of $1,704,976 in Fulton County annually by just the commissioners, municipalities and school districts. According to her statistics, those entities collectively currently spend about $3,121,035 in employee healthcare costs.
Sen. Eichelberger said he would not support the single payer system, saying, "I don't think it is sustainable, and I don't think providers will stay." Instead of the single payer system, he said he supports HealthNET PA, a Republican-supported comprehensive healthcare package It is a $100-million plan that builds on already established practices for the expansion and site development of healthcare clinics across Pennsylvania to provide "medical homes" for 175,000 working poor clients and ease pressure on hospital emergency rooms. Republicans claim that the 507,000 Pennsylvanians served by the $100-million plan is more than double the number projected to be covered after five years under Gov. Rendell's $1.4 billion healthcare proposal, and almost four times the number projected to be covered in the second year.
Many of those in attendance expressed concern over current healthcare costs, and one said, "It's the working folks who are taking it on the nose for these costs." Others simply said, "It's (the healthcare system) broken."
Eichelberger concluded his remarks by saying, "When times are good, everyone comes to us and says we need more money. When times are bad, everyone comes to us and says we need more money because our services are being used more, so it can't be both ways and now there is no money."