Smith: Proposed budget won’t be the one sent to Corbett

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Is Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2011-12 budget a done deal?

House Speaker Sam Smith says no, and that the proposal Corbett made March 8 will not be the proposal placed on his desk as the final budget.
“Do I support the governor’s budget proposal? I support the overall spending plan because it’s all the money we have,” Smith said. “How that money is distributed in that plan is something that the legislature will be changing.”

Smith said he is working to put a budget on Corbett’s desk that he’s comfortable with.

“It won’t look like the budget that he gave us the other week,” but will have some similar priorities, Smith said.

Smith said Corbett did some good things, such as suggesting to consolidate some programs in the economic development world and a few other areas.

In terms of the education budget, among the items that could be on the chopping block in Corbett’s proposed budget is all-day kindergarten. Smith said one of the main reasons the program is at risk is because federal stimulus money has run out.

Smith said school districts and the legislature knew two years ago that the stimulus funds were not permanent, yet couldn’t flatten spending to plan for the day when funding has been depleted.

When the budget cuts were proposed, some school districts equated those cuts with kindergarten, because it was funded from the accountability block grant secondary education line, Smith said. The block grant was an initiative he promoted in the early years of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration to give districts more flexibility on how they used those funds, whether it was for all day kindergarten or tutoring.

“It wasn’t one size fits all, do as I say,” he said. “There was a menu of items to choose from to be used toward any item of their choosing.”
In the 66th District, most school districts used block grant funds to go from half-day to full-day kindergarten, something that the Rendell administration pushed, Smith said.

Corbett’s proposed budget would eliminate block grant funding, which is why some school districts are complaining since it was used to fund all day kindergarten, Smith said.

“I was one of the originators of the block grant concept,” he said. “I believe it’s a good tool for our districts. I appreciate that it gives them some discretion.”

Smith said one thing he can guarantee is there will be cuts across the broad spectrum of the budget.

“Regarding education, the first thing I want to do is adjust the way money is distributed,” he said. “I want to see that our local school districts are taken care of first.”

Smith said the legislature is going to work first on the distribution formula — a beneficial move — to see if it can squeeze enough money out of the welfare arena so that appropriations are the same.

“At the end of the day, there are still going to be some cuts,” Smith said, adding that the cuts will vary from district to district, depending on the highs and lows of their budgets.

Smith said members of the House are looking to see if they can remove some of the mandates that districts have to follow to take a little financial pressure the state budget.

He hopes the legislature can do a good enough job with the state appropriation to basic education, if the school districts can do a good enough job in changing their priorities so everyone can live within the amount of money they have in their budgets today.