Deepest cuts are to education, from kindergarten to college
For a lot of Philadelphians, it’s déjà vu as the reality of Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal — which included 25 percent cuts to state supported colleges and universities and welfare funding — begins to sink in.
“Once again, the Corbett Administration is steering this commonwealth in the wrong direction,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Democratic chair of the Senate appropriations committee. “Corbett … would rather cut first and ask questions later. Pennsylvania cannot flourish in that environment.”
Hughes, who was among the most vocal opponents to Corbett’s last budget, said this year’s proposal suggests the governor remains out of touch with his constituents.
“Despite what the governor may have said … the reality is Pennsylvania’s job creation has been stagnant, economic development is at a standstill and public education — which is still dealing with last year’s billion-dollar body blow — is getting hit again,” he said.
Mayor Michael Nutter was more reserved in his comments, but said the budget proposal is likely to have a significant impact on the city.
“The preliminary view is significant hits in human services and the social safety net, in education — some impact on the library system as well as the areas of public safety and a few others,” Nutter said.
He added that city officials are poring over Corbett’s proposal in an effort to get a more precise picture of how it might affect the city, and noted that the process could take weeks.
Corbett characterized his proposal as “lean and demanding.”
In his budget address Tuesday, the governor outlined a $27.1 billion spending plan that did not include any new taxes, but was filled with cuts, large and small, to many state agencies.
Among the largest, and likely among the most controversial, was his proposal to hack $230 million — roughly 25 percent — from the allocation for state-supported colleges and universities, among them Temple, Lincoln and Cheyney universities.
Community colleges would see a 4 percent cut, and grants through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency would see a 6 percent cut.
School districts across the state got hit with $860 million in spending cuts in last year’s budget. Under this proposal, they would see their basic subsidies rise about $45 million to $5.4 billion, but that would be offset by the loss of $100 million in state grants that helped fund full-day kindergarten and other programs.
That could translate to a $269 million deficit for the Philadelphia School District, said Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, up from the present $61 million deficit between now and the end of the school year.
In addition, while overall spending for the welfare department remained level, Corbett suggested slashing $319 million from welfare programs by eliminating cash payments for about 60,000 participants in the General Assistance program for people who do not qualify for federally-funded welfare. He would also impose new eligibility rules, including minimum work requirements, for about 30,000 recipients who receive Medicaid benefits, administration officials said.
In City Council on Thursday morning, Councilman Curtis Jones blasted the budget proposal and the governor.
“Those cuts start in Harrisburg, but we feel them here in Philadelphia,” he said. “Gov. Corbett is not concerned about Philadelphia or poor people. In the budget message that he sent it was clear. It was mean-spirited. What elected official, what politician, dares threaten kindergarten to the tune of $21 million? State funding for programs to the poor, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors are being dismantled.”
State Rep. Ron Waters, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said Corbett needed to look at new revenue options, something he failed to do in his proposal.
“I believe it’s critical in this economy,” he said. “There is funding available, so that we can do better by the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Waters suggested that the state impose a tax as high as 7.5 percent on natural gas extraction. This week the general assembly did agree to a “local impact fee” that would fluctuate according to gas prices, but that money would flow directly to the municipalities where drilling takes place.
“Citizens are hurting right now,” he said. “Why not ask [gas companies] to do their fair share? That’s what’s missing as we look forward.”
Waters urged his constituents to immediately begin to voice their opposition to Corbett’s proposal.
“The voters out there have the opportunity to send a strong message on this that ‘we want you to do better by us,’” he said. “If the voters of this state send that message to the members of the general assembly, I believe they will fall in line and do the right thing.”
Last year, in the first budget of his term, Corbett cut $1.1 billion in public education funding and $662 million cuts to higher education, as well as including tax breaks totaling approximately $320 million. Like this year’s proposal, his plan did not include any new taxes.
Despite stiff opposition from Democrats, that budget passed easily through the Republican controlled House and Senate.
Nevertheless, Hughes pledged that Democrats would again oppose Corbett’s proposal.
“Over the next few months, my Senate Democratic colleagues and I will continue to push … and work toward a state spending plan that best reflects the needs of Pennsylvania,” he said.