Half of interim Pennsylvania budget vetoed

| Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009

HARRISBURG -- In an effort to gain political leverage, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell on Wednesday vetoed $12.9 billion in a stopgap state budget bill, for services including help for autistic children, mental health services, child care and rape crisis programs.

Rendell said he took the action to have "leverage on the Legislature" to enact a budget that makes substantial investments in public education and avoids a deficit next year.

The governor signed an $11 billion partial state budget, which he said funds only "critical public health and safety services," such as the state prison system and state police. About 77,000 state employees, who received partial paychecks or missed one paycheck entirely, will be paid starting next week.

Among the line items Rendell vetoed: $8.7 billion for public education, $1 billion for county child welfare, $504 million for the State System of Higher Education, $37 million for public libraries, $14.8 million for autism intervention and services, $39.3 million for hospitals, $386 million in Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants to students, $288 million in money for the Legislature, $236 million for community colleges, $43.2 million for Pre-K Counts, $19.7 million for Head Start Supplemental assistance, and $7.1 million for rape crisis programs.

Rendell said he hoped to "send (legislative) negotiators back to the table to communicate, compromise and get real about delivering a true budget agreement for Pennsylvania." He urged legislative leaders to do so in a public conference committee, which to date has been "farcical," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, one of the members.

"His thought is to delay any real discussion on a resolution of a full-year budget until cash flow begins to hit counties and school districts and they begin feeling the impact from loss of funding," Pileggi said. Rendell appears to want the "dog and pony show" public negotiations to mark time while he "creates another crisis," Pileggi said.

In short, the cuts are far from final.

Still, the prospect of cuts and delays in state money strike particularly deep for parents with autisic children, especially because the number of people diagnosed with autism-related disorders continues to grow, said Mary Limbacher of Cranberry, executive director of Parents in Toto, an autism resources center in Zelienople, and mother of an autistic son, Andy, 19.

"That sixth-grade class that had one Andy six years ago now has 12," she said. "We're just starting to recognize that the adult population doesn't have services or support."

Asked which programs likely would be hurt first, Rendell said Head Start and Pre-K Counts.

Officials at Allegheny Intermediate Unit No. 3 were trying to assess the impact cutbacks might have on 578 Pre-K Counts and Head Start students in 30 classrooms across the county.

"We don't know yet. ... We don't have a plan. We need a directive from the state," said spokeswoman Sarah McCluan. "There will be some families left unserved."

By cutting funding for the Legislature, Rendell is declaring open season, said Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at the H. John Heinz Ill School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We got smoke, we got lightning, we got combustion," he said. "It's going to be a very long summer."

Democratic House members were paid Tuesday when the House approved the interim budget. "We weren't planning on having the discussion 'til state workers get their checks," said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin. "What it comes down to is that it's all about priorities."

House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy said it's "tradition" to pay members when a budget passes. "House Republicans are simply bucking tradition to score political points. Nothing more," Marcy said.

Pennsylvania is in the 36th day of a budget impasse. Rendell and lawmakers are unable to agree on how to close a $3.25 billion deficit. Rendell proposed an income tax increase, but lawmakers to date have been unwilling to approve it. Senate Republicans are insisting the state enact no broad-based tax increase.

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