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Budget Hurdle Cleared; Agencies Still Waiting

September 24, 2009 By:
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Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell

The long-awaited agreement over the Pennsylvania state budget -- coupled with the news that Philadelphia has also averted fiscal disaster -- has Jewish agencies breathing a little easier.

But the final funding figures are far from clear, with details yet to be worked out. It remains uncertain just how much Jewish groups may feel the pinch.

"We still haven't seen the numbers, or been able to look at each line item and see how much money is available," said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, who has spent much of the year lobbying against government cuts to Jewish-run social-service agencies.

Butler noted that he'd been working on bringing representatives of Philadelphia agencies to the capital after the holidays, but said it didn't make sense to do so right now.

Pennsylvania remains the only state in the nation without a working budget. The nearly three months of delays were caused by a political impasse over how to shore up a more than $2 billion budget shortfall.

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and lawmakers announced a $28 billion budget agreement that authorized table games and created a sales tax for concert and theater tickets, as well as museum admissions.

Also last week, Philadelphia got the long-awaited permission from Harrisburg to increase the local sales tax to bring in more revenue. Without such funds, Mayor Michael Nutter was prepared to enact $700 million in drastic budget cuts.

One specific item on the chopping block was a job-training program run by JEVS Human Services. Kristen Rantanen, vice president of communications and public affairs for the agency, explained that JEVS found out late last week that the $900,000 city contract would be renewed, after all.

That saved the positions of about 18 JEVS employees, said Rantanen.

What's still up in the air, she added, is whether the final budget will reduce funding to the agency's program to assist mentally challenged individuals. One early version of the budget had proposed cutting total state funding for all such programs from $168 million to $161 million.

Even after the state budget is signed and enacted, which could happen in the next week, the exact amounts that various agencies can expect to receive won't be known for some time.

Surprises Here and There

The budget standoff created nothing less than a crisis over at the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia. Its program for foster children relies on funding that originates at the state level, according to JFCS president and CEO Jack Dembow.

Absent a working budget, those dollars stopped flowing in early July, and JFCS was forced to borrow about $1 million to keep the program running -- funds Dembow expects the state to pay back.

"We're anxiously awaiting an opportunity to review the budget so that we can see how the state's social-services agencies fared," he said.

One person who wasn't so pleased with the agreement was Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, who said that the museum sales tax "was a surprise. I don't think anybody saw it coming."

He noted that the museum will charge admission when it opens in 2010, but the amount has not yet been determined.

"This is a real blow to the cultural community and museums, in particular," he said. "People considering whether or not to come to a museum -- this may make a difference."

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