PUNXSUTAWNEY — As the dawn of the Gov. Tom Corbett administration begins to emerge, state Sen. Joe Scarnati said the atmosphere in Harrisburg is positive.
“We view it as an opportunity to put in conservative policies to give long-term Pennsy-lvania benefits,” he said Thursday.
But, he added, “There will be some pain in this budget.”
The 2011-12 Pennsylvania budget is immediately facing Corbett, who will give his budget address to the state Legislature March 8. That’s a bit late in the budgeting process, but it’s permissible in the state constitution because Corbett is a new governor.
Right now, Pennsylvania is facing a $4 billion structural deficit, created by federal stimulus funds that are fading away and, Scarnati said, “We had the (Ed) Rendell administration spending more than was coming in. It’s time to run the state budget like a family manages its budget.”
He said 85 percent of the state budget consists of corrections, public welfare and education.
“If you eliminate 15 percent of everything else, you still can’t have a balanced budget,” Scarnati said. “The governor hasn’t ruled out any cuts, and some cuts will be painful.”
After Corbett’s budget address, both the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate will hold budget hearings. They’ll hear from the heads of various departments who will explain their own budget situations before crafting a budget.
“Ultimately, the decision is the governor’s,” he said.
Getting a budget done by the deadline — June 30 — is also a priority, seeing how the last eight budgets under the Rendell administration led to impasses and, in some cases, the threat of layoffs for state employees.
The last budget of Rendell’s tenure was also late — sort of, Scarnati said.
“In all honesty, it was signed July 3,” he said. “We were pretty close.”
The state legislature is also looking at reforms and packages to change how state government operates. Scarnati has formed the Intergovernmental Operations Committee, which provides oversight for consolidating some of the what he calls “hundreds of commissions and boards” to which he has appointments, but sometimes cannot find or is not sure of their functions.
“All of them come with a price tag,” he said.
Lawmakers will also focus on safety issues, infrastructure, possible reform of the state Liquor Control Board and, of course, the Marcellus Shale industry, which he said can create jobs while leaving the environment unharmed.
“There are plenty of things they know should be done,” he said.
Facing a budget crisis in 1991, Pennsylvania lawmakers raised taxes by $3 billion, which drove businesses away and hurt existing businesses, Scarnati said.
“Pennsylvania has paid the price: We’ve lost jobs, and we’ve lost the edge,” he said. “We have to take some short-term pain and be a leader among states. I’m not talking about for me, but our children and our grandchildren. We all want them to grow up here, but they need jobs.”
He lauded agencies such as Butler Community College, which is offering classes at Jeff Tech, for bringing chances for higher education — and thus, the opportunity for jobs — to the region.
“We need low-cost, entry-level higher education opportunities, and those will enhance existing entities such as Penn State-DuBois, IUP and Pitt-Bradford,” he said. “I welcome Butler Community College, and I hope that those opportunities will reach well north of I-80, which has been without that option.
“We’ve got to make the climate right. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’” Scarnati said, citing President John F. Kennedy. “We’ve got it before us, and I’m confident we won’t blow it like in 1991.”
Now that his tenure as lieutenant governor is over — he fulfilled the term of former Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll following her death in 2008 — Scarnati said he’s happy to be “Joe the Senator.”
“It’s nice,” he said. “I’ve always said my first love is being the senator from the 25th District.”
As lieutenant governor, bills required Scarnati’s signature before going to the governor. He also served as the chairman of the Board of Pardons.
He said he spent a good part of his first year as lieutenant governor as a spokesperson for the party, traveling to events across the state. But now, Scarnati — who was again elected as Senate president pro tem — said he’s happy to stick to events close to home.
“I’m happy to show up in Jefferson County with a smile on my face,” he said.