2009-08-20 / Local & State

Pennywise-Pound Foolish For PA To Slash Services?

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The waiting lists for Pennsylvania's human service programs all have a beginning, but, it seems, none has an end.

With Gov. Ed Rendell and legislators unable to agree on how to fill a multibillion-dollar deficit, the fortunes of many state programs are up in the air. But the plunge in state tax collections does not bode well for people waiting their turn for everything from preschool to placements in group homes for mentally disabled adults.

"It's never been easy for people on a waiting list,'' said Sheila Stasko, the mother of a 33-yearold mentally disabled son in Lehigh County who runs the Web site, www.pawaitinglistcampaign.org. "It seems like in good times there's never enough money and in bad times they're the first ones to get kicked out.''

The waiting lists are routinely cited in the debate over the state budget as the spending stalemate drags through its seventh week.

Here are examples:

More than 280,000 for adult- Basic, the state's low-cost health insurance program for lower-income adults, easily more than two years long.

About 16,000 for the state's day-care subsidy that is designed to help low-income parents hold jobs.

More than 13,000 for day, home and community services for the mentally disabled.

Earlier this month, Rendell authorized $12.8 billion in spending - the total includes $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money - that ensures that state employees get their paychecks on time, debt payments are made, the poor get medical care and government offices, prisons and state parks stay open in the coming months.

But the Democratic governor vetoed another nearly $13 billion that Republicans had endorsed for human services, education and more, criticizing the amount as inadequate to sustain and improve crucial services.

The tactic, he hopes, will pressure GOP lawmakers to accept a tax increase that would allow the state to spend more on those programs as part of a $28 billion-plus spending plan that Rendell is seeking.

However, Rendell and Democrats have not shown how they can address the rising demand for services without a tax increase - and that's where they have struggled to pick up broad public support, observers say.

Rendell administration officials and advocates for children and the disabled maintain that Republican proposals would result in people actually getting kicked out of their slots, allegations that Republicans reject.

Still, Republican proposals, if they become law, might give rise to a new waiting list. The Children's Health Insurance Program that serves nearly 200,000 children will need more money to meet the ever-increasing demand, advocates say.

A final budget may not be approved until at least September - and many are worried about the will of policymakers to fight for money to shorten the waiting lists.

"If anything, they're going to get bigger,'' said Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit group.

Republicans maintain that government needs to live with what it has because a recession is a bad time to ask people to pay more.

"There is a limit to what government can do and the limit is largely defined by the amount of resources that the government has to apply to the many needs that present themselves to state government,'' Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said recently. "We never have enough resources to meet all of the needs.''

Advocates contend that the programs are worth the investment because they keep their wards out of unemployment lines, homeless shelters, emergency rooms, nursing homes and jails where they end up costing taxpayers more. So, in theory, it costs extra today, but saves taxpayers more money later.

For instance, Benso said, a state study last year of a preschool program that seeks to deliver high-quality education showed that 99 percent of the children improved their skills. The vast majority who enrolled lacked three key skill sets, but, when they exited, 75 percent displayed skills necessary for kindergarten, Benso said.

That will save the school districts money for remedial education, she said.

"I heard someone say the other day, 'You don't buy a new car this year,''' Benso said. "Well, I would argue you don't stop changing the oil in your car. Otherwise, your car is going to break down sooner or later and cost you more money.''

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