Woe spreads in Pennsylvania's 4-month budget standoff

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — State-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs are shutting down, domestic violence shelters are closing their doors and Pennsylvania's school districts are begging for more time to pay their bills — all because of a four-month budget stalemate that shows no signs of ending.

County governments and local school boards waiting on billions in state aid are burning through loans and emptying reserves. Some social services organizations are shuttering programs and laying off hundreds of workers who care for the state's most vulnerable populations.

Even for Pennsylvania — a state that's seen its share of knockdown, drag-out partisan fights — this one is particularly worrisome.

"It's a bunch of crap, to be honest with you," said Kathy Moyer, who was told her 4-year-old son Jake would attend his last day of pre-kindergarten Friday at the Growing Place in Brodheadsville, before other nonprofits came to the rescue to keep it open — for now.

The governor, Tom Wolf, is a first-term Democrat and former businessman unaccustomed to political deal-making who wants a multibillion-dollar tax increase to correct a long-term deficit and narrow a funding disparity between rich and poor school districts considered to be among the nation's widest.

The Legislature's large, entrenched Republican majorities have not budged on a tax increase. Separately, Republicans have pressed Wolf to agree to two of their top priorities: ending the traditional state pension benefit plan and the state-controlled wine and liquor system. Wolf opposes those moves.

The dispute leaves Pennsylvania as only one of two states — Illinois is the other — that hasn't agreed on a budget yet. Each side has sniffed at the other's grudging concessions as meager, and every day that ticks by brings more bad news.

Two shelters for domestic violence victims closed their doors to new arrivals Friday, citing the lack of state aid. A state-subsidized pre-K program at Riverview Children's Center in the Pittsburgh suburb of Verona closed down, too.

A fellow class of Riverview pre-kindergarteners signed their teacher's open letter to state policymakers: "We aren't allowed to play until we solve our problems. The budget stalemate is a BIG PROBLEM. Are you working on the problem?"

Pennsylvania has seen stalemates before — most notably in 1991, 2003 and 2009 — but this is different: Public school advocates and social services providers say they are in more desperate straits now after post-Recession funding cuts enacted by Republicans.

It's also a quieter crisis.

Under a 2009 court ruling, state employees can be paid and kept on the job, meaning that no state functions — such as prisons, highway patrols, state parks or driver license centers — are shut down, although money for expenses from travel to toilet paper is scarce and utilities and other contractors are going unpaid.

Other provisions in federal or state law allow Medicaid, unemployment compensation and debt payments to be made.

Education officials wonder when the first school district will decide to shut down to send a signal to Harrisburg. People who deal with the vulnerable wonder if someone has to die first.

Meanwhile, bond rating agencies are casting a critical eye on Pennsylvania, editorial writers are turning on Harrisburg and bank loans are underwriting the paychecks for most lawmakers.

A Pittsburgh-area school district that is one of Pennsylvania's poorest, McKeesport, has left teaching positions unfilled, ballooning elementary class sizes, and canceled tutoring and some high school electives. Bigger cuts — athletics and pre-K — may be in store, Superintendent Rula Skezas said.

To some extent, school superintendents and social services administrators are torn. They want money now to avoid more damage to their institutions, but they also support Wolf's effort to backfill funding cuts under the previous administration.

"It's unfortunate that it's at the expense of our children," Skezas said.

Last Monday, a woman in a shelter for domestic violence survivors tried to kill herself after she missed an appointment with a therapist. The shelter had halted its transportation services to save gas money.

"It's something that possibly could have been prevented," said Jennifer Snyder, executive director of Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County.

Many lawmakers continue to count on the politics of pressure to gain an advantage in negotiations. Others see the institution of state government as a big loser, regardless of the ultimate outcome. For his part, Wolf says he is awaiting concessions from Republicans; Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, says the same about Wolf.

The state's independently elected fiscal watchdog, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, suggested that the only winner may be the banks loaning hundreds of millions of dollars to schools, counties and social services organizations.

"And nothing against the banks," DePasquale said, "but I don't know if our job in Harrisburg is to help the banks win more."