PUNXSUTAWNEY — While saying that changes in policy are needed in some state government departments, State Sen. Joe Scarnati said Tuesday that the amount of money in this year’s proposed budget simply will not increase.
The state senate has held the line on taxes the last four years, and Scarnati said taxes will not be increased this year.
“It’s clear that taxpayers don’t have any more to give,” he said.
Therefore, he said the state has to find a way to fund necessary and desirable programs with the money available.
“I tell everybody there are a lot of things that are debatable in this budget. One thing that is not debatable is how much we can spend,” he said about Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget. “We have $27.3 billion to spend. We’re not going to raise taxes, so that is the number. The question is, how are you going to spend that money?”
Corbett’s budget suggests heavy cuts to public schools and universities, and to human services.
“I’m conscious of the gravity of the cuts and the implications that those cuts have,” Scarnati said. “Some education line items have been cut 50 percent. Other line items have been cut 100 percent.
“This budget is just the beginning. We work on it and go through what I like to call a reshuffling process,” he said.
That reshuffling process will involve active conversation with schools and human service providers.
“We don’t have to be adverse with schools or agencies,” Scarnati said. “We need to work together and find a compromise. We need to know how we can help. Can we lessen mandates? Can we help them raise money?”
While proposing cuts to education and human services, Corbett’s budget also suggests increased funding for the Department of Welfare and the state prison system.
Scarnati said fundamental changes in policy need to be made to lower spending levels in those departments. He is advocating such changes, but the effects of those changes could be years away.
“We’re spending $35,000 per year for some individual — let’s say from Punxsutawney — because he was caught drinking in violation of his probation,” Scarnati said. “That person doesn’t need to be sent to prison. He needs rehab. The policies need be to rethought.”
He said there are many inmates who would be available for release if more rehabilitation options were offered, and the state would be able to “lop off hundreds of million of dollars” by adjusting the prison system.
However, those savings would not be immediate.
“We could make that change this year,” he said. “But it is going to take more than several months to see the impact of that change.”
Regarding welfare, Scarnati said he believes there is “a great amount of abuse and fraud in that department.”
This legislative session will mark the third consecutive session that Scarnati has introduced a bill that calls for all people receiving public assistance to prove they are legal residents of Pennsylvania.
The bill was voted down in the state house the last two years, but Scarnati hopes it will pass this year.
“We could save many millions right there,” he said. “It will be moving to the house soon. Hopefully, it will pass. These are the savings we can find in welfare.”
Still, the Department of Welfare is vital to many citizens, he said, and cuts have to be made very carefully.
“A huge majority of the welfare money goes to long-term care for frail, needy elderly citizens,” he said.