The state budget bill has passed a key Senate committee, setting it up for a final vote by the full Senate Friday. As happened in the House, committee debate offered a glimpse of what topics are likely to receive the most airtime during the Senate's floor debate. Two unsuccessful amendments prompted the debate that serves as our best preview of tomorrow's back and forth.
One addressed what Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) called a "glaring hole" in the budget proposal. Hughes called for a restoration of $150 million for the Department of Public Welfare program serving roughly 70,000 people. General Assistance provides an average of $205 a month to people with disabilities or addiction problems, as well as those who have suffered domestic abuse. "They need these dollars to get through their circumstance," said Hughes.
WHYY's Emma Jacobs and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Amy Worden have reported on DPW's premature notification of General Assistance clients that their benefits will end come July 1, 2012. The line item's kibosh is not yet official.
Sen. Jane Earll (R-Erie) voiced concerns that the cash assistance program had morphed, and is now serving fewer abuse victims than it originally intended, and more men than were ever supposed to be in the program.
That was news to Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), who said discussions with DPW Secretary Gary Alexander revealed no such justification for cutting the program. "He never argued that those who were on it weren't in need," said Williams. He said his understanding was that its elimination is "simply a matter of money, not a matter of policy."
Alexander has said, as recently as Monday, that General Assistance is being cut because it is one of a few programs that receives only state funding. Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) put it another way: "things [that] aren't mandated, we're not going to continue to do." He said most states had gotten rid of their analogous programs.
The Hughes amendment to restore General Assistance failed. An amendment proposed by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa to undo a 10 percent cut to seven human services programs administered by counties failed, as well.
The committee voted the budget bill out shortly after 8:30 p.m.