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Pa. Gov. Wolf proposes to add $28M a year for human services

Natasha Lindstrom

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed spending boost for human services could help curtail waiting lists for mental health care, increase housing options for homeless families and enable nonprofits to invest in long-term strategies for stemming poverty, regional nonprofit and county officials said Wednesday.

Advocates of more funding hope that Wolf’s call to pump nearly $28 million more into county human service departments next year will begin to make up for $84 million in cuts to these types of programs three years ago.

“That would help tremendously — it would allow us to increase some services to meet some of the needs, reduce waiting lists and reduce emergent needs,” said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services.

But Wolf, a Democrat, faces a high hurdle to get his budget plan through the Legislature — not just with Republicans who control both chambers but with some members of his own party.

“The real problem is not that we’re not spending enough, but that we’re not using those resources wisely,” argued Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think-tank. The foundation issued a report Wednesday blasting Wolf’s plan for growing welfare spending “without any types of reforms.”

Even those who endorse Wolf’s $30-billion-plus budget plan — and its heavy reliance on tax hikes to generate revenue — are wary about its chances of making it to Wolf’s desk on time.

The Wolf administration aims to patch a $1.5 billion to $2 billion deficit with a complex plan to shift state and local taxes, increase sales and income taxes, and impose a new tax on natural gas extraction while cutting natural gas extraction impact fees.

Negotiations will intensify next week in Harrisburg when the Legislature reconvenes with barely a month to pass a state budget by the June 30 deadline.

“We’ll try to do everything we can to mitigate the hardship that a late budget would force on local nonprofit providers, and on a whole lot of people who depend upon state aid — local school districts, municipalities, counties,” State Budget Secretary Randy Albright said Wednesday after giving a presentation to the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, which represents more than 400 nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“But this is a historic moment,” Albright added. “This is a chance to hit that reset button. And I think the governor will not tolerate simply another same ol’, same ol’ budget that isn’t going to take advantage of this moment and really fix a lot of these structural challenges.”

Roughly 200 people, the majority representing nonprofits specializing in human services, packed a ballroom at University Club in Oakland for the partnership’s annual state budget meeting.

The local nonprofit sector is an “economic engine” that has been too quiet about its needs, even as state government has increasingly outsourced social services to nonprofit providers, said Kate Dewey, president of The Forbes Funds, a nonprofit consulting arm of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“Those cuts have kept coming and coming, and we haven’t pushed back,” Dewey said. “We have to think about the delicacy of creating an economically sound budget based on what this sector does do and wants to do for the state.”

In Allegheny County, nonprofits with budgets less than $100 million dole out $1.8 billion in annual compensation to more than 75,000 employees, putting them on par with manufacturing and construction industries, research by The Forbes Fund found. Together, they raise and spend $4.4 billion a year.

“Now is a time that, frankly, we are flat-lined,” Dewey said. “We don’t have the capacity to take risks, and we don’t have the capacity, just like manufacturing and construction and others, to make investments in critical infrastructure.”

Allegheny County alone has more than 300 contracts with nonprofit providers specializing in services, including emergency housing, aging services, intellectual disabilities, drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse and protection,and early childhood education, among other areas.

About 225,000 of the county’s 1.2 million people use at least one such program, Cherna said. The county human services department gets roughly 60 percent of its $800 million budget from the state.

“We all have our favorites, and so we all fight,” state Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, a panelist at the budget briefing, said about the challenge of choosing which line-items to protect and which to trim. He acknowledged, for instance, that he became more engaged in efforts to support children with autism once his son was diagnosed with the condition.

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said it’s “imperative to reach common ground.” He said “certainly” he expects a late budget, but he is hopeful that a compromise on a “real budget” can reach the governor’s desk by mid-to-late July.

The pair of bipartisan lawmakers and other observers say they don’t expect this budget season to be as dire as 2009, the year of the 101-day impasse. Costa hopes it will be settled by mid-to-late July.

Dewey advised nonprofits to develop a contingency plan that assumes a final budget won’t be in place until August.

If the delay extends into mid-August, “We don’t have the money to pay the agencies, and that’s where it starts getting very serious,” Cherna said.


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