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Rendell's budget draws criticism

February 04, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH and DON AINES

Students, teachers rally for Scotland School

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Franklin County legislators on Wednesday morning quickly identified several proposals in Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's draft budget that would affect their constituency, not the least of which is the planned closing of Scotland School for Veterans Children.

In addition to closing the school June 30, Rendell proposed allowing counties to raise the sales tax, consolidating school districts, and committing $42.5 million for rail and aviation improvement projects.

The commitment to railway development could benefit Chambersburg's CSX rail and truck freight facility and future Norfolk Southern development, state Sen. Richard Alloway said. It could mean thousands of jobs in the county in future years, he said.

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"That's extremely important for us in Franklin County," said Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York.

State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, commended the governor on not proposing personal income tax increases or statewide sales tax increases. However, he criticized Rendell, a Democrat, for proposing $1.3 billion in new spending as he simultaneously cut programs and jobs.

Projections are that the current year deficit could be as high as $2.3 billion, and Rock said next year's deficit could add $3.5 billion to that.

"The problem is spending," Rock said. "We don't have a revenue problem here."

Fellow House member Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland, echoed Rock's frustrations.

"You don't start new programs in this kind of a budget year," Kauffman said. Rendell's budget proposal contains some fuzzy math, including hundreds of millions in new spending next year while funding for agriculture and other programs are slashed.

"He budgets winners and losers" rather than making all state programs share the pain, Kauffman said.

"He's actually introducing about $281 million in new taxes" on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, natural gas drilling and businesses, said state Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry/Franklin.

As part of his address regarding the $28.9 billion budget, Rendell briefly mentioned giving counties the ability to broaden their tax base by allowing them to impose a sales tax increase of up to 1 percent above the state's 6 percent. However, he said that 50 percent of the proceeds should be shared with "our hard-pressed cities."

"At first glance, it appears to give counties something they have been seeking for decades, an alternative to property taxes," Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas said. More details need to be learned about how the other 0.5 percent is shared, he said, including whether county municipalities that provide services such as fire and police, will benefit.

Alloway said he'd rather expand the state sales tax to include exempted items in an effort to eliminate property taxes. In that same vein, the state senator said he's happy that Rendell renewed a commitment to education by proposing to increase school subsidies by $300 million.

"If the state doesn't fund local education, the school boards are going to have to raise taxes on the people," Rendell said.

Rendell also requested that a committee determine how best to consolidate the state's 500 school districts so that no more than 100 remain.

Waynesboro Area School District Superintendent James Robertson previously worked in Virginia, which has a county-based system. He sees both positives and negatives with consolidation.

"I think certainly there are savings. ... Are the savings worth what you're giving up?" he asked.

The students could have better programs and more opportunities, but transportation could be a big obstacle unless students continued attending schools in their communities, Robertson said.

"I think it's pie-in-the-sky," Chambersburg Area School District Superintendent Joseph Padasak said of the proposal. With 9,000 students in his district, "we're big enough," he said.

It would be better if the state released districts from many of the mandates that create administrative overhead, Padasak said.

"We have 70 people in this building and half of them are there because of state mandates," Padasak said of the district's administration building.

As for funding, he said it appears Chambersburg will get about $21 million in state subsidies for basic and special education next year, an increase of about 2 percent.

Rendell proposed legalizing video poker in businesses with liquor licenses to help fund higher education. Rendell said in the speech that 17,000 of the machines are operated illegally in clubs.

"Some of us found it humorous that he said this is not an extension of gambling," Kauffman said.

For Keller, the proposed budget has a huge "if" hanging over it: Federal bailout money.

"I don't like to rely on federal funds until we have them," Keller said. Rendell's budget assumes $3.5 billion in federal funds to balance the current budget and in 2009-10, he said.

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