Another budget stalemate looking likely; human service agencies worry

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Every spring they come to the Capitol; the students, and advocates and protesters, and supporters, all with a message for lawmakers and Governor Wolf.

Tuesday, they filled the hallways and stairwells and escalators.

“Who here is proud to be a social worker?” asked Johanna Byrd in the Capitol Rotunda.

Her question was greeted with a thunderous cheer from the nearly 900 social workers filling the main staircase. Their primary mission on this day was to pass a bill requiring social workers to be licensed. Pennsylvania is one of just two states in America, Byrd said, where people can treat individuals with mental health issues and not have to be licensed.

“That means if you were licensed in another state and got your license revoked because of malpractice, you can cross the border into Pennsylvania and open up a private practice like nothing ever happened,” said Byrd, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Earlier in the day, professionals who help those with intellectual disabilities filled the same staircase.

Their message was, “please, no more budget impasses.” The last one really hurt.

“Our folks were on lines of credit. They had to lay people off. Some agencies had to close programs because they weren’t able to meet payroll,” said Johanna Blue of the Lancaster-based Community Services Group, which aids folks with intellectual disabilities in 19 Midstate counties.

Byrd said social workers also felt the pinch during the nine-month budget stalemate.

“We had social workers who were going without salaries because the budget wasn’t in place or practices going severely in debt, taking money out trying to keep their doors open,” Byrd said.

“One of the things we have to do in this year’s budget is finally start reinvesting in the human service agencies across the state,” said Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) to the crowd of social workers. His comment was met with applause.

Governor Wolf’s proposing more for schools and social services. But it won’t be easy.

“He (Wolf) wants $3 billion worth of new taxes, he wants $3 billion worth of new spending,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said. “He’s not gonna get anywhere near that, so we’re gonna have the same difficulties we had before.”

Not a promising comment from one of the leaders at the budget table.

“A lot of this is still, as you know, posturing time and not cut-the-deal time,” Frankel said in dismissing Corman’s comments. “We need to hopefully get to cut-the-deal time before time runs out on June 30 this year.”

Of course, posturing time never ended and cut-the-deal time never came in the current fiscal year. It’s not looking or sounding good for next year’s spending plan.

“As long as you have a governor that’s out of touch with the rest of the country,” Corman said when asked about the tenor of the new budget talks. “There’s not one state in the country that’s proposing a 10-percent increase in spend. Most of them are down below four percent. A 10-percent increase in spend! I mean, that’s not reality.”

But there are harsh realities to stalemates, and lots of the folks roaming the Capitol want to remind lawmakers and the governor that their inaction has consequences.

“There are beliefs on either side that are strongly held,” Blue said diplomatically as possible, “but the reality is the people in the community are caught in the middle of that budget impasse and we’re desperately trying to deliver the message that they need to get to the table and get a budget passed in a reasonable period of time.”

Swarms of people helped deliver that message Tuesday. Whether it’s acted upon remains to be seen.

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