Budget steals headlines

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During Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, the state budget typically made news for its timeliness - or lack thereof. Its passage was late in each of the eight years Rendell was in office.

There was debate about the content of the budget, too, starting with its unveiling in February until its passage somewhere after the June 30 deadline.

No time in recent memory, however, had the state budget proposal been so closely scrutinized as it was in 2011. And this year's dissection has topped last year's, by far.

Much of the debate, of course, is reflected through the media, and certainly that's been the case for The News-Item.

From Sunday, April 29, through Thursday, May 10 - 12 straight editions - the budget, be it education or human services funding, was front-page news in The News-Item in all but one instance (and even then, it was referenced in another story).

In the first four editions mentioned, April 29 through May 2, we presented a four-part series about education funding, prompted not only by Gov. Tom Corbett's local visit and the controversy surrounding it, but also in an attempt to clarify the widely opposite views of those who said public education funding had increased and those who said it was cut by $1 billion.

Our series started with an explanation of the impact of the loss of federal stimulus money - one of the most misunderstood portions of the funding changes. We also looked at the controversial issue of pay freezes for administrators and teachers, how transportation funding may change under the new setup and, to wrap up the series, the issue of pension costs. Along with the pay freeze story, we published the content of the Act 93 contract for Shamokin Area School District administrators, which is seven-plus pages long in its 8-by-10-inch form.

Newspapers across the state, of course, have been writing about the education budget for the past three-plus months. We may have been ahead of the curve in some respects because of the drastic cuts made at Shamokin Area and the visit by Corbett to the area just eight days later. It pushed the funding issue to the top very quickly for local residents.

In fact, it was four days after our series concluded with the pension problem that Corbett detailed his concerns in an interview with the Associated Press. In the resulting story, the governor equated pension costs to "a Pac-Man or a tapeworm eating up the budget."

The education portion of the funding plan has generated the most headlines, in our paper and elsewhere, but changes impacting county human services funding is a close second. Together, education and human services impact nearly every Pennsylvania resident - from kindergarten children to the elderly - hence the widespread attention.

Good or bad, the headlines will mostly likely continue right up until June 30.

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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