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Pa. lawmakers back budget cuts

January 10, 2009|By DON AINES and JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Along with 40 other states, Pennsylvania is facing a burgeoning operating budget deficit for the current fiscal year, one lawmakers must close before crafting a budget for what likely is to be a cash-strapped 2009-10.

"I'm more concerned about making sure the budget is balanced for this year," said state Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry/Franklin. By law, the state must have a balanced budget, he said.

Gov. Ed Rendell's midyear budget briefing in December predicted a shortfall of $1.6 billion, and listed measures that have or will be taken to close the deficit. More than $460 million is projected to be realized from budgetary freezes announced in October and December, and $375 million from transferring half of the state's Rainy Day Fund to the general fund.

Another $174 million would be transferred to the general fund from leases for drilling for natural gas on state-owned land, the report stated.

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The largest element in balancing the budget is $450 million the state would ask for in federal fiscal relief, part of an economic stimulus package that presumably would be enacted by President-elect Barack Obama and Congress.

"I certainly don't think we should rely on federal money to balance our budget. Obviously, if it's approved, we'll accept it," said state Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland. However, the state took years to get itself in this position, said Kauffman, who has voted against the budget each of his four years in office.

Kauffman said he was among a handful of House members to vote no and warn "we were building a deficit into the budget" with overly optimistic revenue projections. Further, the state deferred paying $130 million into the pension fund to balance the budget.

Kauffman, Keller and other legislators representing Franklin County said they expect a number of tax increases to be proposed by the administration for 2009-10. While Rendell might not try to raise the broader income and sales taxes, Kauffman believes tax hikes on tobacco, gas and alcohol are possibilities.

"I'm not for taxing," Keller said. "I'm definitely for cutting."

"I think the governor recognizes the gravity of the situation, and I trust he will do everything in his power to help balance the budget," said state Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York. For next year, Alloway said legislators first should look at cutting spending.

"I intend to take a scalpel rather than a chain saw to the budget so we can carve out savings without decimating good programs," Alloway said. "We can trim a little bit of fat at each place and see if we can come up with the money to balance the budget."

"I did it when I was in charge of my budget at the magisterial district judge's office," said Alloway, coming in 2 percent under budget his first year and 14 percent his second. "I've cut about $350,000 from my Senate operating budget, so I know it can be done."

The House Republican Caucus has trimmed its budget by $11 million since 2004-05, Keller said. That figure represents the state income tax generated by more than 7,000 families with a household income of $50,000.

"If we can do it, the rest can do it, too," Keller said of the other House and Senate caucuses.

"A good start would be to eliminate legislative and executive WAM (walking around money) programs," Kauffman said of the grants from various department funds the administration and legislators hand out. "That would do a lot to close that hole."

State Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams/Franklin, said the Republicans' hands are tied in the House, where they currently have 99 members to the Democrats' 104. He anticipates losing two more votes when a pair of House Republicans are called to Iraq for military service.

"We're going to have to take whatever medicine (Democrats) serve us," he said.

"It's tough to do a lot when you're down by that many votes," echoed state Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin. Rock said he expects the next six months will be spent working with the 2008-09 budget and talking about the subsequent one.

"As we all know, the budget is taking over Harrisburg," he said.

The $1.6 billion budget deficit "could easily reach $3 billion," Rock said.

"(Rendell is) going to have to trim the fat in a hard way," Moul said. "I refuse to vote for a tax increase or to borrow any more money."

Rendell "would rather raise taxes and spend more. That's not my philosophy," Rock said.

The governor and legislators need to examine what contributed to 39 percent increased spending in the past six years, then slash those things from the budget, Moul said.

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