Budget tension builds
Gov. Tom Corbett won't present his third budget for another two months, but already the tension building over that event is evident.
The $27.6 billion state budget is basically a spending plan, and the fiscal turmoil of the past three years with tax revenue shortfalls, spending freezes and the elimination of many budget line items and programs has emphasized how fluid the whole thing is.
While state revenue collections are improving, the escalating costs of public pension obligations and potential loss of $300 million in federal aid if the fiscal cliff isn't averted are two matters making budget planning difficult.
The cumulative impact of several years of spending cuts since the 2008 financial meltdown also looms over the fiscal 2013-14 budget.
More than 800 organizations raised the issue last week of cuts to the State Food Purchase Program, the conduit for supplying food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries with food for the homeless, jobless and working poor.
State funding for SFPP has declined to $17.3 million from $18.7 million, or 7.5 percent, since fiscal 2006-07 while demand for services has increased as more Pennsylvanians become eligible for food assistance, according to these groups. About 1.3 million Pennsylvanians qualify under the program.
The groups sent a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett seeking $24 million for SFPP next year.
"It's times like these, when so many Pennsylvanians are struggling, that we truly appreciate and understand the enormous value of the State Food Purchase Program," said Sheila Christopher, executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, an advocacy group. "Without this program, many of our most vulnerable residents simply would not be able to put food on the table."
While not addressing the food issue specifically, Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said the delegations he meets with rarely ask for less money. When informed of the fiscal difficulties, they respond with a "yes, but," he pointed out.
Having to meet pension obligations and increases in health care costs for Medical Assistance will leave zero extra dollars for other programs, said Zogby.
House and Senate Democratic leaders are pursuing a new angle in this early budget maneuvering. They are asking whether state corporate tax breaks like the continued phaseout of a stock tax and extension of business tax credits have created any new jobs.
"The administration has put the corporate community ahead of people who need support," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-43, Pittsburgh.
Zogby pointed to the creation of 105,000 private sector jobs since Corbett took office in 2011, even while acknowledging a loss of 20,000 in public sector jobs.
(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail email@example.com.)