Pa. would take $300 million hit if fiscal cliff talks fail
HARRISBURG — If Republican negotiators and President Obama fail to reach a fiscal agreement by Dec. 31, Americans will pay more taxes, and state programs from education to welfare will fall short, interest groups and state officials warn.
Pennsylvania would lose about $300 million in federal money starting in January, said Charles Zogby, Gov. Tom Corbett's budget secretary.
“The potential impact of going over the ‘fiscal cliff,' on every state, is enormous,” Corbett told the Tribune-Review last week. “It will go to education. It will go to welfare.”
On average, people would pay about 8 percent more of their income toward taxes, with those in the higher and lower brackets hardest hit, said the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.
Among programs that likely would absorb cuts are Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which assists pregnant women and families, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps provide heat through grants to about 500,000 Pennsylvanians.
“Our safety net programs would be crushed,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, adding, “We're hopeful, very hopeful” that lawmakers in Washington will resolve their disagreements.
“For people with disabilities, it will be devastating,” said Maureen Cronin, executive director of the ARC of PA, which advocates for the disabled. Its chapter in Pittsburgh serves Allegheny and Beaver counties.
Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Zogby, said without federal action, across-the-board cuts of about 8 percent would take effect next month, along with tax cut expirations.
“Together, these events ... have the potential to impact general fund revenue growth the remainder of this fiscal year and next,” he said.
Pennsylvania may decide not to replace federal funding with state tax dollars, Pagni said.
“If there's a spending cut, we'll probably have to wait-list people” for WIC services, said Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department. About 16,200 women and children in the county utilize the program. Officials would not remove any enrollees but would not add any until openings occur, he said.
The program provides nutritional counseling, breastfeeding support and food vouchers.
Since the economy soured in 2008, most of ARC's discretionary funds “have already been cut to bare bones, or their appropriations have not grown to keep up with inflation,” Cronin said.
She predicted cuts for early intervention programs, which help families learn about a child's developmental delays; preschoolers in early intervention would lose opportunities to receive special instruction that reduces the need for special education later.
If state lawmakers don't replace lost federal money, less money would be available for education and special education programs.
For some school districts, that would result in larger class sizes and fewer teachers, teachers' aides and tutors, said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers in collective bargaining.
“We already cut supplies, we already closed buildings and reduced programs,” said Dan Castagna, superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District. “Cuts now will reduce personnel, which ultimately has the worst possible impact because these are the people who interact with the children every day.”
“It's very troubling,” said Shauna D'Alessandro, vice president of the West Jefferson Hills school board. “We have no idea what Jan. 1 holds for us.”
Defense-related cuts in the state could total $1.5 billion, Pagni said.
Pennsylvania is home to 196 Department of Defense facilities, some of them located together, and four for the Coast Guard, under Homeland Security. Those include 84 facilities under the Pennsylvania Army and Air National Guard.
Among the military facilities are the 911th Airlift Wing and 171st Air Refueling Wing in Moon.
Staff writers Rachel Weaver, Kim Leonard and Carl Prine contributed. Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and firstname.lastname@example.org.