Last month Governor Ed Rendell proposed a $54.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year 2006-2007. State legislators will debate and discuss the dollar figures and policy implications of each line item over the next several months. Ideally, a final bill will pass the House of Representatives and the Senate before the new fiscal year begins in July.
The budget revenue comes from numerous sources. The general fund ($25.4 billion) comes mostly from the personal income, sales and corporate taxes that citizens pay. No new taxes are proposed. $16.9 billion comes from the federal government and the remainder from special funds such as driver’s license and other fees.
The programs funded by the Commonwealth budget impact the lives of every Pennsylvanian. Every line item has significant public policy considerations. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) will closely watch the budget negotiations on several policy areas that are of keen interest to concerned Catholics, especially areas that benefit the poor, protect the unborn and uphold the dignity of all.
A small but significant line item of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) budget is the Pennsylvania Alternative to Abortion Services Program. The funding supports the non-profit, charitable organization Real Alternatives, a state-wide network of 125 pregnancy support centers, social service agencies, maternity residences and adoption agencies that offer comprehensive, life-affirming alternatives to abortion to women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Real Alternatives has served more than 100,000 women throughout Pennsylvania since the program began in March 1996.
The budget proposal allocates $5.5 million to this program. The tax dollars are used for counseling, referral, pantry visits for baby food and other essentials, pregnancy test kits and education. The program offers a crisis pregnancy hotline, 1-888-LIFE-AID and a website, www.realalternatives.org.
Although advocates support this line item, they are wary of efforts to put more funding into family planning services that are abortion related. Last year, Governor Rendell vetoed language that restricted family planning funding from being used to promote, perform, counsel or refer for abortions. A court case is still pending. Pro-life lawmakers are seeking a legislative remedy to ensure that this does not happen in the upcoming fiscal year.
Other interesting areas of the budget include increased funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which offers coverage to all of the state’s children; funding to help an additional 120,000 senior citizens buy prescription drugs through the PACE Plus Medicare program; and, a 2% cost of living adjustment to many important health and human services programs ranging from community mental retardation programs to assistance for the homeless. Catholic hospitals and nursing homes will review the rates of reimbursement for Medicare and Medicaid clients. There is some concern that the proposed rates will fall short of the need to provide services to qualifying patients.
As the Church’s public affairs agency in Pennsylvania, PCC formulates policy positions with reference to state government programs, legislation, and policies that affect the common good and the interests of the Church. Throughout the state budget proceedings PCC staff will advocate for policies that reflect Church teaching and concern about morality, health, welfare, education, and human and civil rights.
PCC Column March 2006 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.