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State welfare targeted to spare higher education

HARRISBURG — The Department of Public Welfare's proposed $11.2 billion budget, the largest area of spending in state government, remains a target of House Republicans as they attempt to restore some of Gov. Tom Corbett's recommended cuts in higher education.

But GOP leaders acknowledged at a news conference on Wednesday that the package of eight bills they were touting would not have a significant impact on the 2011-12 budget in which Corbett is trying to close a $4.2 billion deficit.

"We believe there will be some savings" for the current budget proposal, said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. But he and other Republicans could not provide a number and say they envision long-term savings.

"The proponents of these bills have taken their eyes off the ball," said Michael Froehlich, a staff attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. "They should be focused on creating jobs, reducing our unemployment rate and addressing Pennsylvania's crushing poverty rate. These bills would do little to save taxpayers money."

The bills include measures requiring random drug testing for people with felony drug convictions, requiring photo identification before collecting benefits and ensuring that people collect benefits at their permanent residences, so they cannot establish temporary residency in counties with higher benefits.

Republicans say they plan to trim welfare to offset 50 percent cuts in higher education sought by Corbett. A starting point could be $400 million in potential welfare savings identified by Auditor General Jack Wagner, Turzai said.

Those findings included a Philadelphia father using a fake name and Social Security number to collect $7,367 to baby-sit his own children and an Allegheny County resident who was issued 99 different debit cards. Advocates say the Special Allowance program covering those expenses has been revamped since Wagner's 2009 audit.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, offered his own anecdotal evidence. He said he received a call from Delaware County welfare officials who said they discovered they had been sending seven welfare checks to one address. Adolph also claimed Medicaid recipients had taken $2,500 private ambulance rides.

In Pittsburgh yesterday, Allegheny County Human Services Director Marc Cherna said proposed federal and state budget cuts are targeting mostly preventative programs, like Head Start, subsidized day care, AmeriCorps and family centers.

Those cuts are self-defeating, local officials said. They would put more stress on families and keep more people out of work, which means demand will soar for more expensive, legally required programs like foster care, unemployment and prisons, they said.

Corbett has proposed $70 million in cuts to child welfare and human services. That would cut services for about 5,400 Allegheny County residents, according to county estimates.

The county spends $7 million on local family centers, $2 million of which is in line to be cut by the state, Cherna said.

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