Two-Sided Budget


For Philadelphia's organized Jewish community, this might well be a tale of two state budgets.

The first represents the best of times: Pennsylvania's $27.66 billion budget, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett minutes before the deadline on June 30, includes a huge boost to an educational funding initiative championed by some Jewish groups.

But in terms of funding for critical services, say advocates for the disadvantaged, the same budget, while not quite registering as the worst of times, comes pretty close.

The roughly 10 percent cuts slated for most human service puts Jewish groups and other social services agencies in a bind. As the economy continues to struggle, more people are seeking assistance from government-funded agencies, which are themselves hurting for more dollars.

But first, the elation of those buoyed by the budget's inclusion of new school-related tax credits.

For years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, the lobbying arm for the Jewish community in Harrisburg known as PJC, have been pushing for increases to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program. That program offers businesses state tax credits to donate to certain public and private schools — via non-profit organizations that serve as intermediaries — and has resulted in millions of scholarship dollars for use by students at local Jewish day schools and pre-schools.

This year's budget grants their wish in terms of a $25 million boost in available EITC tax breaks, bringing the total to $100 million. As recently as two years, EITC funding was capped at $60 million.

Additionally, the maximum contribution a corporation can make was raised from $300,000 to $400,0000, with the understanding that it will increase to $750,000 next year.

Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz applauded the provision. "An increase in EITC was the best way to help more children from low- and moderate-income households attend Jewish day schools and pre-schools because it was an established program with consensus support in the Jewish community — as well as across the Commonwealth."

The state budget also borrows an idea from a school choice bill recently introduced by State Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who represents Beaver County, west of Pittsburgh.

The Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit — not to be confused with the similarly named EITC — will use $50 million in tax credits to facilitate corporate support for "opportunity scholarships" to low-income students slated to attend the state's poorest performing public schools. The credit is considered a more politically palatable alternative to the voucher concept.

Hank Butler, executive director of the PJC, said that "the voucher concept didn't have the votes in the House."

He added that, for now, the various school choice bills floated in the House and Senate are essentially mute as the state will focus on growing EITC and EICS.

"This was huge," he said. "Everything we have been trying to get for the past five years, we pretty much got it all right now."

The Orthodox Union also praised the school choice portion of the budget, even though it does not contain a voucher provision that it had championed.

Schwartz said that Federation is "certainly intrigued by the new Opportunity Scholarship tax credit program. It appears to have many of the advantages of the current tax credit program."

Not everyone loves the new scholarship initiative.

Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania, has called the idea "a back-door voucher that will divert needed taxpayer dollars away from cash-strapped public schools for the benefit of private and parochial schools."

But as happy as Jewish officials were with the school choice portion of the budget, they were disturbed by the potential impact cuts will likely have on seniors and low-income individuals.

In terms of services for the poor, the first thing that advocates pointed to in the budget was the elimination of the General Assistance program, which is expected to save the state $150 million. The program provided a $205 monthly check to disabled adults, domestic violence survivors, recovering addicts, children living with an unrelated adult or adults caring for an unrelated child.

Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility, said that 23 such recipients are clients of Jewish Family and Children's Service. Not only will the loss of those dollars hurt these individuals, he said, but JFCS and other Jewish agencies will undoubtedly be approached by more people in need who relied upon General Assistance dollars.

"Their needs will be greater as we continue to step away from having a safety net," said Gralnick, who predicted that many of the former fund recipients will end up relying on other state programs and cut into the savings to the state.

According to early reports about the budget, total human services funding was projected to be cut by 10 percent. Initially, it had been closer to 20 percent, but a number of moderate Republican lawmakers are credited with pushing back against more austere versions of the budget.

The PJC this week was just beginning to gauge the impact of the budget on Jewish social service agencies. It could be weeks or even months before groups such as JEVS Human Services — a Jewish organization that gets the overwhelming majority of its funds from government sources and largely serves non-Jews — have a clearer sense of how their own funding will be affected.

For instance, the budget contained a $15 million (7 percent) cut to mental health services funding and a $4.8 million (10 percent) cut in behavioral health services funding. It is not yet clear whether JEVS, which runs programs in those areas, will receive comparable cuts.

Kristin Rantanen, JEVS vice president for communications, said, "How that will specifically play itself out by the time funding reaches the county level remains to be seen. In our experience, some portion of those cuts do hit the ground where providers are doing their work."

Rantanen said that other recent state reductions — which she speculated were made in anticipation of the new budget — forced JEVS to close its job training program for adults with intellectual disabilities. The program had 40 participants; eight staff members were let go as a result.

One budget item that did not get slashed was the State Food Purchase Program, which provides both the Jewish Relief Agency and the Federation's Mitzvah Food Project credits to purchase food directly from wholesalers and distribute the goods to individuals in need.

The program is being funded at the same level as last year –$17.3 million. Two years ago, this revenue stream made up about half of JRA's $34,000 monthly food budget. The most recent figures weren't immediately available.

Amy Krulik, JRA's director, said that no spike in funding means there's "not enough to help families and individuals who continue to struggle financially. We expect to see continued increases in demand for our program."


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