Smith: Rein in welfare costs, abuse

House Speaker Sam Smith said Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed $27.3 billion budget shows bigger cuts than perhaps expected in higher education, but Smith said he would like to see deeper digging into the budget for the Department of Welfare and abuses with the program.

“One element that probably caught my attention in particular is, I certainly don’t think we’ve dug deep enough into the waste and fraud in the welfare spending area,” Smith said Tuesday. “Because of the way (Corbett) has done some restructuring, it’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison. But looking at the summary numbers, I certainly think we’re going to want to be more aggressive with the welfare spending, focused on people that have been added to the rolls, but are not really eligible.

“I don’t get that call every week, but it’s a fairly regular comment: Someone going through the grocery store with junk food, pop, and paying for it with an ACCESS card, while the person behind them has three part-time jobs and is scraping to get by and has to buy minimal stuff,” Smith said.

He said he believes the administration should look at more aggressive control of spending in that area, which could “soften blows to, say, higher education.”

About the overall budget, Smith said. “It’s a tad higher than I might have anticipated, but it’s a workable number. It’s certainly not outrageous in the high end or the low end.”

Corbett’s proposed budget also calls for a 10-percent reduction — $550 million — in funding for K-12 instruction in public schools.

“Basic education is a reduction over last year, as far as a state contribution,” Smith said. “It has (been)sustained over the last three years. The cut there is a response in loss of federal stimulus money. That was the bait two years ago that dragged that out. You can’t put the stimulus into the base spending. The only way to sustain that is if the economy comes roaring back. So I think it was a sustainable level as far as basic education, and the loss is federal.”

Of course, perhaps the biggest proposed cut is a 52-percent reduction — or $625 million — for the 14 state-owned universities in the System of Higher Education, plus Pitt, Temple, Penn State and Lincoln.

Tuesday afternoon, groups associated with Penn State — such as 4-H, which is supported by the Penn State Cooperative Extension — expressed concern about Corbett’s proposed cuts. Tuesday, Penn State said proposed cuts totaled about 52 percent — to $182 million — which also included reductions in agricultural extension and the loss of federal stimulus dollars.

Local 4-H groups recently visited Smith in Punxsy to stress support for the program.

“I suspect there are several smaller appropriation lines that we’ll certainly be sensitive to, as to the impact on rural communities,” he said.

Smith, who has long advocated consolidation of duplicate problems, said he was also happy to see a degree of that in the proposed budget.

“I think he’s made a valid effort at trying to consolidate some programs, or at least gaining some savings and eliminating duplicative administrative costs,” he said of Corbett. “I — at least to the degree we can look at this moment — think it’s a good direction in other areas such as welfare, education and corrections.”

Smith said corrections has been one of the fastest-growing budget items in the last several years.

“The governor is trying to slow that down, dealing with some problems instead of building prisons,” he said. “I think he’ll be more more aggressive with using probation/parole mechanisms to deal with convicted people.”

Over the next three weeks, the House Appropriations Committee will hold budget hearings to gather public input on Corbett’s proposal, after which deliberations will continue.

Smith said taxpayers should not expect a long, drawn-out budget process as he said was typical during Gov. Ed Rendell’s tenure.

“This budget is pretty much right in your face, where everything comes from,” he said. There are no smoke and mirrors as we’ve grown accustomed to in the past administration.

“We’re not going to sit around and wait,” Smith said. “The last administration basically played the legislature into trying to draw a later budget — he (Rendell) liked the controversy. It was a tactic to generate a need for more revenues, more spending. This administration is not going down that road. We’re all geared toward making the tough decisions.”