by Sue Ann Rybak
State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D-Phila.) discussed the flaws with Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2013-14 budget proposal at a town hall meeting held March 14 at United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia (UCP), 102 East Mermaid Lane.
Also in attendance was Joseph Scullin, director of community social services at UCP, 14th Police District Capt. John Fleming, Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, and Kathryn Dreher, outreach and communications coordinator for the Office of Property Assessment.
Local agencies and organizations attending included representatives from the Office of Housing and Community Development, the Philadelphia Fire Department, PECO, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (a division of the Philadelphia Streets Department). the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.
More than 80 residents listened to Parker, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, explain why she doesn’t support Corbett’s plan to sell off state assets, like the Pennsylvania Lottery and state liquor stores.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it,” Parker said. “You would think attempting to privatize the lottery would be like trying to increase our taxes a thousand fold.”
Parker said the lottery is a predictable, profitable source of income for the state. She said that instead of proposing a one-time source of funding for public education and programs for senior citizens, the state should be looking for ways to develop a long-term strategy to fund public schools.
Parker said it was “terribly frustrating to me in even beginning to have a discussion about the privatization of the lottery that we would attempt to do business with a company outside of our country – forget a firm not based in Pennsylvania.”
She added that this was particularly important now that Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is above the national average of 7.9 percent and is one of only six states that saw its unemployment rate rise over the previous year.
“If we want to make improvements to the lottery, then let’s do it,” Parker said.
Privatization of state stores
Parker said Corbett hopes to raise a billion dollars for education by privatizing state liquor stores. She said the governor’s proposal will only provide a one-time, short-term relief.
“My grandmother would say a bird in one hand is worth two in a bush,” Parker said.
She added that the state needs concrete funding that is going to be consistent. Parker said the governor’s proposal is filled with “if then statements” that appear to solve the problem. She said state liquor stores provide over 5,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and promote economic development. She said Pennsylvania continues to lose jobs because of Corbett’s failed policies.
Sharon Ward said at first glance Gov. Corbett’s budget seems OK.
“We have a better economy, so this is the first budget that doesn’t propose a lot of cuts,” Ward said.
She added that the budget does “almost nothing” to restore cuts to education and other human services.
“The improvements that have been presented in a number of critical areas are all based on the legislation doing some things that are difficult, politically unpopular or impossible,” Ward said. “The Governor is just tying things that people really want to things they really don’t.”
She said in the process the state is slowly eroding its ability to pay for critical services such as education and health care.
Ward said the Governor stated in his budget address that he has done nothing to raise taxes on middle class families. But she said in essence he has, by reducing funding for critical services such as education and Medicare, has created a tax shift that has led to either reduced services or increases in residents’ property taxes.
“As we talk about school funding moving forward, people need to focus their attention on the governor and our state legislators in Harrisburg because they do have the capacity to improve our schools and keep our property taxes in check,” Ward said. “But, that all depends upon the politics that are enacted in Harrisburg.”
While Corbett has repeatedly said he would not expand federal Medicaid benefits, under the Affordable Care Act in the Commonwealth, the governor has yet to make a final decision. Corbett has requested a meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing a Pennsylvania Medicaid expansion.
According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, if Corbett decided to opt-in to Medicaid expansion, the state could extend health care coverage to between 600,000 and 800,000 residents and could generate an additional $43.3 billion in federal funding for Pennsylvania’s economy through 2022.
Ward said the option to expand Medicaid services under the Affordable Care Act “is just a good deal for states.”
“That’s why eight Republican governors have looked at this and said this is too good a deal for our states to pass up,” Ward said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost of the expansion through 2016, and 90 percent of the cost after that.
Ward said the budget also includes new business tax breaks, including $250 million in lost revenue from the continued phase=out of the capital stock and franchise tax, which will be eliminated in 2014.
“How can you cut taxes when you can’t pay your bills,” Ward said. “The governor always says we should be like Texas when it comes to natural gas. Well, we should have a tax on natural gas just like Texas and we don’t.”
Ward said the governor’s decision to reject an opportunity to expand health coverage through Medicaid to more low-income working people is a “clear statement of his priorities.”
Actual Value Initiative
Residents sounded off about AVI. Several attendees voiced concerns over neighbors’ whose homes were supposedly grossly underestimated.
“I don’t have a problem with my assessment,” said a Mt. Airy resident, who didn’t want to be identified. “I believe my whole block was assessed fairly.”
The resident said the house at 401 Roumfort Road on the corner of Anderson was assessed at $66,752.
“That’s less than a man who has several vacant properties in North Philly, where were all assessed at $70,000,” she said, “and that’s only one example.”
The woman handed Parker copies of assessments she printed out from the OPA’s website. The Local could not find an assessment on the OPA’s website for the property at 401 Roumford Rd.
Parker took the assessments and promised to look into it immediately.
Kristina Evans, of East Mt. Airy, said she came to the town hall meeting because she had questions regarding AVI.
“I don’t feel that my assessment is all that terrible,” Evans said. “But, nobody has explained to us how they went about doing this. Who did it? When? Where?”
She added that she would have liked to have heard more about the Medicaid expansion.
“I did write a letter to the Governor and got a response that sounded absolutely ridiculous,” Evans said. “I don’t think he is going to be our Governor much longer.”