2009-08-27 / Local & State

'Real Pain' Felt Amid Grandstanding On Pa. Budget

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Alarms are going off at the hundreds of agencies that provide help to children from low-income families, battered women, homeless people and others among Pennsylvania's most vulnerable citizens.

The agencies, mostly private groups that rely on state reimbursements, are increasingly feeling the pinch of a political stalemate at the Capitol that is now in its eighth week.

The organizations are burning through their savings, deferring bill payments and otherwise struggling to stay afloat. Daycare centers are laying off employees, preschool programs are scrapping plans to reopen in September and some agencies say they already are on the verge of collapsing.

"It's real pain,'' said Tony Ross, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, who estimated that 50 to 100 nonprofit agencies would have to close if state aid is not restored by Sept. 1.

Earlier this month, lawmakers approved - and Gov. Ed Rendell signed - a $12.8 billion stopgap budget that ensured timely paychecks for tens of thousands of state employees and maintained funding for state prisons, parks and most state-subsidized health care.

But he vetoed about the same amount of spending endorsed by Senate Republicans for other programs - including social services, public-school subsidies and college grants - to put pressure on the Senate GOP to drop its opposition to tax increases Rendell says are needed to adequately finance the state government.

Lawmakers from opposing camps profess a common desire to end the political grandstanding and hammer out a compromise that will put a full state budget in place for the first time since June 30.

But last week, while budget talks among leaders continued at a crawl behind the scenes, actions seemed to speak louder than words.

At a rally against "cuts'' in state subsidies for public schools, Rendell tapped into the celebrity power of Philadelphia native Bill Cosby.

"No more cuts!'' the comedian declared, as the audience roared its approval and fans snapped pictures of Cosby standing at a podium in a baseball cap, shades and sandals.

In fact, neither side proposes to cut this year's subsidies for Pennsylvania's school districts. For the record, Cosby acknowledged to reporters that he is not familiar with Pennsylvania's budget debate.

Senate Republicans want to roll back the state portion of this year's subsidy by about $730 million to free up that money for other programs. They would replace it with an equal amount of federal economic stimulus funds so school districts get at least the $5.2 billion they received last year.

The Democratic governor proposes to put up $5.2 billion in state money and use federal stimulus money to provide additional subsidies of at least $300 million. He contends that the GOP approach would leave a much bigger gap in state funding when the stimulus money dries up in two years.

The amount of the subsidies has grown by 27 percent since Rendell took office in 2003.

"We cannot go back on the educational progress we've made in the last 6 1/2 years,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans sought to restore spending for certain social services and college grants, only to slam headfirst into the reality that they lack the votes to override vetoes. As expected, all of the override attempts failed amid opposition from all but one of the Democrats.

Leaders noted that the Senate GOP supported some or all of the spending Rendell proposed for the programs in question and that it was unfair to interrupt those services solely for political reasons.

"The only reason that they were vetoed is for leverage purposes,'' said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Sen. Jay Costa, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the final budget should balance the needs of all Pennsylvanians and cannot be assembled piecemeal. He noted, for example, that the GOP proposes spending tens of millions of dollars less on prekindergarten programs than Rendell advocates.

"You can call it leverage,'' the Allegheny County senator said. "We call it fighting for the people of Pennsylvania.''

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