No help on the way for human services

State funding cuts have made it increasingly difficult for human services agencies to fulfill the needs of their clients.

Unfortunately, help from Harrisburg doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon for some of these organizations.

Pete Tartline, executive deputy secretary for Pennsylvania’s Office of the Budget, outlined Gov. Corbett’s state spending proposal, which continues many of the funding cuts put into place over the last several years.

“We are in challenging fiscal times we’ve never seen before,” he said during a state Budget Watch Town Hall meeting Tuesday at Lycoming College.

State Senate and House lawmakers are in the midst of trying to negotiate Corbett’s proposed $29.4 billion budget prior to the June 30 deadline.

As always, the problem is deciding what programs to include in the spending plan and how to fund them.

The bad news, Tartline said, is that revenues from state taxes are coming in lower than expected.

“We know slow revenue growth means some cuts have to be made,” he said.

Beyond that, the state faces hundreds of millions of dollars in state pension obligations that will challenge the state for years to come.

For the upcoming year alone, the state’s contributions to both the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System are expected to be more than $600 million.

In addition, the state faces increasing costs due to the Affordable Care Act.

Overall, Tartline noted the state’s mandated funding obligations have risen from $11.6 billion in 2007-08 to $15.8 billion in 2014-15.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, told Tartline that the state needs to impose a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

A proposed House bill would impose that tax while maintain the natural gas impact fee already paid by drillers.

Pennsylvania, he said, remains the one state where drilling occurs that does not have a severance tax.

“Choices about how to raise revenue in the last few years have hurt us,” he said.

Tartline said gas drillers impacted by impact fees also must pay corporate net income taxes.

He questioned why the gas industry should be singled out for paying a special tax.

“We need a long range plan to fix our tax system,” Mirabito said.

The lawmaker noted that just 53 percent of the revenues from the impact fee come to local communities where drilling occurs.

Tracy Haas, a spokesman for North Central Sight Services, asked if perhaps a severance tax might be the answer for funding human service agencies.

She told Tartline her organization has not seen an increase in state dollars since the 1970s.

And in 2009, the Williamsport-based agency, which provide blindness prevention education, vision screenings, services and employment to individuals who are blind or visually impaired, actually absorbed a funding cut.

Tartline said the amount of revenues from a severance tax is dependent on the price of gas and how much drilling occurs.

Jenny Hill, a case manager with Family Promise, said her agency is not directly affected by state funding cuts.

But many of her clients dependent upon other state subsidized services feel the impact.

Joseph Capita, former president and CEO of the United Way’s Capital Region in Harrisburg, noted that people who rely on non-profit and human service organizations, are continuing to feel the effect of state budget cuts.

The cuts, he said, have come during less than favorable economic times when people can least afford to be without services.

“We know slow revenue growth means cuts have to be made,” he said.

The challenge is making sure the most vulnerable people receive the help they need, Capita added.

Scott Lowery, executive director of the Lycoming United Way, called for cooperation between private and government concerns.

He noted his own organization raised $1.5 million last year in its annual fund drive to support local organizations – none of it government money.