Leaner government emerges from Pa. budget battle

HARRISBURG, Pa. - October 10, 2009 The fine print of the $27.8 billion spending plan for 2009-10 that Rendell finally signed Friday shows they weren't just crying wolf.

With the budget enacted, and plans under way to get money flowing again, government officials now must determine how their new funding levels will affect the programs they run.

A spreadsheet released by the Rendell administration Saturday puts the total general fund reduction across state government at 1.8 percent, or $524 million less than last year's $28.3 billion figure.

"In some agencies they'll have to take a good look at how they're allocating their funds and how they're allocating their personnel," Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said Saturday. "They might have to look at their cuts and see if, perhaps, they can do things differently."

Tuma said state government layoffs are probable but a precise number has not been determined.

The Department of Community and Economic Development, home to grant programs that fuel business growth, lure out-of-state employers and help towns and cities rebuild, took the biggest percentage cut, down 53 percent to $265 million.

Department spokesman Mark Shade said it could have been worse. "It does hurt from a program standpoint," Shade said. "But the money is spread, I think, pretty evenly. Early on in the budget process it looked like a lot of those programs weren't going to float at all. So we do feel somewhat relieved that we'll be able to continue doing what we've been doing, although at a drastically reduced level."

Similar reductions were made in other areas. Rendell pointed out during a news conference held to announce he had signed the main budget bills that 142 of 657 line items were zeroed out, and another 360 were lower than last year.

Funding was completely eliminated in many corners of state government, from programs that educate children about drugs or advertise the state's tuition account program to efforts to promote a "transition to organic farming" or attract filmmakers to Pennsylvania.

Labor and Industry was cut by $29 million, nearly a quarter of its budget, and entirely lost vocational rehabilitation, entrepreneurial assistance and self-employment assistance line items.

Conservation and Natural Resources took a 19 percent hit, including more than half of what it spent on forest pest management and $9.3 million from its state parks operations.

Historical and Museum Commission support for each of eight museums was down more than 50 percent, and the Public Television Network's total state subsidy, $11.3 million, was eliminated.

The Scotland School for Veterans' Children in Franklin County will be closed for good, and there is transition money to shut down the Scranton State School for the Deaf.

In the Department of Environmental Protection alone, which was reduced by $58 million, or 27 percent, line items that got no funding included climate change initiatives, the consumer energy program and an $11 million safe water effort.

The state Senate's budget fell 9.6 percent to $92 million, while the House of Representatives took a 3.8 percent cut, to $185 million. The Legislature lost its $48,000 to buy flags and $454,000 to conserve flags and rare books.

The state's judicial branch sustained a nearly 10 percent reduction, to $277 million.

Although the Department of Public Welfare's budget fell only 1.7 percent, a relatively modest cut, it soaked up $1.7 billion in federal stimulus money, creating the potential for a massive shortfall once that money goes away in less than two years.

"I still have great qualms about what's going to occur" in fiscal year 2011-12, without the federal stimulus money, Rendell said Friday night. "Those are challenges we have to consider, but this budget is a good one, it's a realistic one."

Long-delayed state checks will soon be moving again. Treasury Department employees were working through the holiday weekend to start paying about $3 billion in overdue expenditures.

Treasury spokesman Carrie Fischer Lepore said Saturday that about 9,000 are being given priority treatment, including payments for public welfare, child care, homeless shelters, public libraries, special education and veterans services.

The money will arrive not a moment too soon for some organizations, said Tony Ross, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania.

"If the checks are not there in the next week, they're going to have to shut down," Ross said.

Rendell was noncommittal about having the state pay the cost of borrowing for agencies that have taken out loans to make ends meet.

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