Corbett Wants More Flexibility For Spending On Neediest Citizens

Harrisburg Patriot-News

Now Gov. Tom Corbett has put his weight behind a bill to expand a pilot program he says gives counties more freedom to spend state money on mental health care, children and youth services, homelessness and other human services.

Flanked by commissioners from 26 counties Monday, Corbett urged the legislature to pass a proposal by state Sen. Pat Vance that would allow every county to receive its human service funding as a block grant. Last year, legislation allowed 20 counties to receive that funding as a block grant.

On Monday, Corbett and Acting Secretary of the Department of Public Welfare Bev Mackereth detailed success stories from those counties.

Greene County created a case worker position to work with families that might otherwise need multiple case workers. Berks County shifted money to allow 40 more people enter drug and alcohol treatment. Lancaster County put a new emphasis on fighting homelessness.

The fate of the block grant will be decided in this month’s budget fight, with competing bills in the legislature that would expand the program to all counties, 30 counties or eliminate it. The Senate is expected to vote on Vance’s bill Tuesday.

If given the chance, the County Commissioner’s Association estimates between 40 and 50 of the state’s 67 counties would take their money in a block grant.

The show of muscle in the Governor’s reception room came soon after the Service Employees Union filled the rotunda to protest much of Corbett’s agenda, including the block grant program.

Kicking off the rally, state Sen. Rob Teplitz — the only senator to vote against Vance’s bill in committee — called expanding the block grant a “bait-and-swtich.” The block grants came with a 10 percent cut in base human service funding. Without restoring those cuts, the block grants simply pit underfunded programs for the counties neediest citizens against one another, Teplitz said.

Teplitz, a Dauphin County Democrat, charged that it was reckless to expand the block grants without hard evidence on how it has worked.

“When are we going to see the results of this pilot program?” Teplitz asked before the union members resumed chanting “no more cuts.”

In a statement, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo said he is still waiting for DPW to answer basic questions like, did any of the counties using block grant funding take money away from a department? Without those answers, DiGirolamo said, the program cannot be expanded. The Bucks County Republican sponsored the bill that would eliminate block grant funding.

Corbett said those fears were overblown.

“I hear some people say we should wait a year to see the results,” Corbett said. “I don’t think we need to wait. I think we’re seeing the results here.”

Mackereth said she asked for the type of freedom the block grants allow when she when she was the human services director for York County, only to be told it couldn’t be allowed. All state money for human services came in seven categories. That money couldn’t be shared between the services, and any money not spent at the end of the year had to be returned.

Thirty counties applied for the 20 block grant spots last year. All 20 want to remain in the program going forward.

Dauphin County, for one, wants to use the flexibility of the block grants to overhaul its mental health services. However, Dauphin County’s mental health office has said the 10 percent cut in base funding created a “tipping point” that forced it to serve fewer residents last year. Unless that funding is restored, the county has said, the problem will continue, no matter how the money is delivered.

The mental health office for Cumberland and Perry counties, which did not have the block grant, had similar complaints.

Right now, the various budget proposals working through the capitol include flat funding for human services.

When asked how human services could fully succeed in places like Dauphin County without restored funding, Corbett shifted topics, and said concerned legislators should back his pension reform plan, since that could protect more human services money in the future.