Inside Your Town

Frustration is in the air at forum on proposed state budget

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The people who decide how tax money is spent and those who use it to provide health, education and human services tried talking and listening to one another for two hours Thursday morning.

While the conversation was civil and respectful among the 50 or so participants at the Fowler Center in Bethlehem, frustration seemed to fill the air by the end of the United Way's second annual forum on the state budget.

It was especially apparent in an exchange between Diane Elliott, executive director of New Bethany Ministries in Bethlehem, and Pete Tartline, executive deputy secretary of Gov. Tom Corbett's budget office.

Elliott, whose faith-based agency helps the homeless, the hungry and the mentally ill, pointed out that New Bethany uses its funding to prevent people from becoming a burden on the state by keeping them out of the prison system or becoming entirely dependent on social services.

But with funding becoming harder to come by even as demand for services increases, Elliott wanted to know, "What positive message can I take back for the people we're trying to help?"

Tartline replied that the Corbett administration is committed to reducing the prison population and using those savings on programs that cut down on recidivism.

Not satisfied, Elliott pressed him again: "But what positive message can I take back?"

Tartline responded: "The positive message is, there a finite amount of money, and it's being invested in human services. ... We've cut the fat. Everyone's getting down to the bone. We recognize that."

Which prompted this blast from Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley: "A lot of people making these [funding] decisions are completely clueless," he told the gathering, which included several state representatives and their surrogates. "The fabric of this society is shredding. ... They have no idea what the reality is."

Jennings also had an exchange with Todd Donnelly, president of Viamedia and chairman of the United Way's 2012 campaign.

Donnelly said he believes "people should take care of other people. ... We are all strong and we need to rely on ourselves." Asking for government to help should only be a last resort.

"And don't kill corporations," Donnelly continued, referring to a questioner who wondered why 70 percent of corporations are not paying state taxes.

"They're giving back," he declared, as he mentioned several Lehigh Valley businesses that make generous charitable contributions.

Jennings then cited a statistic for Donnelly: "American corporations account for 6 percent of all charitable giving. A lot of others are carrying the load."

Victoria Coyle, executive director of North Penn Legal Services, said the staff of her non-profit is losing ground while trying to do more with less.

Coyle said she has laid off 12 of her staff, and reduced North Penn's budget by $1 million. Some of the staff are not getting pensions, some are not getting health care and there have been no cost of living increases, she noted.

"People who need [our services] cannot get in the door," she said. "[But] it's always us [non-profits] being asked to give more and more."

Peter Schweyer, director of government and community relations for Sacred Heart Hospital, said he was pleased that Gov. Corbett is heading to Washington, D.C., next week to talk about expanding Medicaid in Pennsylvania with Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

He said by currently, 7 percent of Sacred Heart's patients "walk in and pay nothing."

By accepting the Medicaid expansion part of the president's new health-care plan, the number of uninsured in Pennsylvania could drop by two-thirds by 2016. Not doing so would cost the state $3.2 billion in annual growth, he added.

Tartline said Corbett has been reluctant to opt in on the program because of the many questions surrounding it.

In his 20-minute opening presentation, Tartline pointed out that the governor's proposed budget "has the highest level of state education funding in history" -- $5.5 billion, a $90 million increase over last year.

And, he said, the governor has earmarked the expected $1 billion from the sale of the state liquor store system for educational programs.

But Susan Lozada, executive director of community and student services in the Allentown School District, said from her vantage point, "the perception is that public education is being dismantled. We're always talking about a balanced budget rather than a balanced child."

She said privatizing liquor sales will make alcohol more readily available and undercut anti-drug and alcohol programs aimed at students.

She suggested lawmakers explore other ways of funding public education, including taxing profits from Marcellus shale gas drilling and getting blighted properties back on the tax rolls.

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