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Wolf administration accused of ‘political gamesmanship’ with blind

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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in his office in Harrisburg on April 13, 2015.

HARRISBURG — House Republicans accuse Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration of employing “scare tactics” in threatening the potential loss of funding for services for the blind if a state budget impasse occurs.

Rep. Mauree Gingrich, chair of the House Labor and Industry Committee, asked Wolf in a letter Thursday to “cease this type of political gamesmanship” in what she called a “thinly veiled attempt to leverage funding.”

Gingrich, R-Palmyra, told the Democratic governor that it was an “ominous warning” to suggest that funding would not be paid retroactively if lawmakers can’t agree upon a budget by the June 30 deadline. At stake is more than $2 million in funding for services for the blind.

“There’s no question it’s a scare tactic,” said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans.

But Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the letter “was not authorized and the Governor’s Office had no knowledge this was being sent.”

“It’s leverage time in Harrisburg, and all parties are searching for pieces that can help them build public support for their positions,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Miskin pointed out that Wolf’s campaign mantra in 2014 promised he’d be “a different type of governor” with regard to politics and governing.

“Why is he not accepting responsibility for his own staff?” Miskin asked.

Lisa Pletz, an analyst with the Department of Labor and Industry, sent the letter to the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind, which has 26 member organizations.

Pletz could not be reached.

The department “is reviewing the matter and plans to take appropriate action internally,” Sheridan said. He said agency Secretary Kathy Manderino “will be sending a letter clarifying any confusion arising from the correspondence sent to organizations.”

Wolf on several occasions has promised “government that works — one worthy of our trust,” Gingrich noted.

She believes that Wolf and Manderino did not know about the letter, but it appears a staffer will take the blame, Gingrich said. She thinks Wolf should accept responsibility.

With a June 30 budget deadline, the letter appeared to be a tactic to get activists involved, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

“This letter goes beyond just mobilizing for funding and injects a sense of urgency into the lobbying actions to make sure that groups press for a solution,” Leckrone said.

Pletz told the blind association that “services provided without the benefit of available funding cannot be paid for retroactively.” Among the services are vocational rehabilitation and statewide blindness prevention.

That threat of retroactive loss of funding distinguishes this threat from others in past administrations, Miskin said.

Wolf and the Republican-controlled House and Senate are attempting to negotiate a budget while facing a deficit estimated between $1 billion and $2 billion. Wolf’s ambitious spending and tax plan has many in the Capitol predicting a delay. He’s pushing a $30 billion-plus budget.

“As long as the people of Pennsylvania pay their taxes, we have money, and we should not make people suffer just because it takes us longer than the deadline to settle our differences,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield. “They should not be used as political pawns to force one side or the other to do things.”

Elaine Welch, president and CEO of the statewide association for the blind, said she interpreted the letter to mean that funding would not be provided if there is an impasse from July 1 through the date a budget is approved.

“I don’t think services for blind people are in jeopardy,” Welch said, adding the association would cover any services not funded by the state.

To suggest “our administration does not prioritize those who are vulnerable or in need is ridiculous especially in light of past cuts supported by the legislature and our investments in offices like this,” Sheridan said.

Wolf’s budget includes a $5 million increase for vocational rehab, he said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected]. Sam Janesch, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, contributed to this report.

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