Human services funding faces another budget fight
A dimmer outlook for state tax revenue collections is setting the stage for difficult budget choices for human service programs for the fifth year in a row.
The state Independent Fiscal Office forecasts that the projected tax revenue growth that Gov. Tom Corbett built into his 2013-14 budget proposal in February will disappear due to weak consumer spending and a corresponding drop in state sales tax revenue.
Corbett has proposed several initiatives for individuals with disabilities. Two proposals involve paring down long-standing waiting lists of individuals with disabilities seeking community support services and living placements for a second year in a row, and expanding a block grant program for human service programs currently being tried out in 20 counties, including Luzerne and Wayne. Two of the major programs in the block grants are community services for mental health and for mental disabilities.
The governor is seeking nearly $20 million to provide so-called community waiver services for an additional 1,080 people with mental disabilities.
He wants to enable as many counties as desire to participate in the block grant program while keeping state funding at current levels.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, Bensalem, is putting a spotlight on how belt-tightening has affected individuals and families receiving services through the community waivers and human services programs.
He chairs the House Human Services Committee, which held a hearing featuring personal testimony last week about the waiting lists. A hearing on the human service programs is planned this week.
The committee hearings come as the House majority Republican caucus plans to unveil a starting-point state budget bill that will reflect the changed revenue outlook. The bill introduction is needed to meet Sunshine Law timetables for the adoption of a new state budget by the June 30 deadline, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh. Action on the bill isn't expected until next month.
DiGirolamo wants to restore an $84 million cut in state aid made last year to the county-run human services programs in the next budget. That cut accompanying the start of the block grant has resulted in waiting lists for services under mental health and drug and alcohol treatment programs, he said.
DiGirolamo predicted the proposed $20 million in additional funding for community waiver services will survive the budget process since the governor had made a commitment to it.
The extra waiver funding in the current state budget has resulted so far in a drop of 800 people from a waiting list that currently numbers 15,000, testified Fred Lokuta, a deputy secretary in the state Department of Public Welfare. A total of 27,000 are served by the community waiver program in Pennsylvania.
Advocates say the state needs to do more to help individuals on waiting lists who live with aging parents and shorten delays in providing services after individuals have been enrolled in the waiver program.
The $20 million in proposed funding to meet the needs of more than 1,000 people on waiting lists is a step in the right direction, but it will still cover only a fraction of individuals in the emergency need category, testified Lisa Tesler, policy coordinator of the Pennsylvania Waiting List Campaign.
"With 4,154 in emergency need, and another 6,853 individuals in critical - meaning they need services within two years - we need a big solution to a big problem," she said.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)