During a Center City forum focusing on policy issues affecting low-income families, sponsored by the United Way of Eastern Pennsylvania - of which the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is an affiliated service agency - speaker after speaker predicted dire consequences from Republican efforts in the state capitol to place a fixed cap on spending, as well as similar plans on Capitol Hill to reduce the national deficit through drastic fiscal budget cuts.
"If these budgets are cut, [many of our programs] won't be able to operate - it's scary," declared Michelle O'Connell, public-policy coordinator for the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, after attending the briefing.
The Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is hoping to pass a deficit-reduction bill that would decrease federal spending by more than $50 billion; the measure would trim billions from the federal foster-care system, as well as the federal student-aid program. Attempts to bring the bill to a full House vote were put on hold last week when it became apparent that not enough moderate Republicans were prepared to vote for the cuts.
The Senate has already passed its own bill that would trim the federal budget by $36 billion.
The Goal: A Unified Bill
In Pennsylvania, the state Senate and House of Representatives have passed separate spending-cap bills that would tie budget increases to an index based on the inflation rate and population growth.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith (R-District 66), said that the two chambers plan to produce a unified bill that will go before Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
Republicans also hope to amend the state constitution that would shield the budget change from any review by the General Assembly in future years. That, however, would require approval in two consecutive legislative sessions and a ballot referendum, a process that could take as much as four years to complete.
"The armageddon they are crying is utterly false," stated Miskin of those criticizing the bill, adding that if the law were currently in place, Pennsylvania would actually have in excess of $600 million more in the budget than it does currently. "Schools will not close, colleges will not close, student loans will still be funded.
"If something is a priority, it will get funded," he continued. "It's about living within our means, and not tying the hands of our children with higher debt and higher taxes."
But O'Connell remains unconvinced.
She argued that since the population is growing at a slow pace - and the costs of things like health care and home heating keep going up - she can't see how the poor and elderly won't feel the pinch.
Rendell's administration, as well, is not taking too kindly to the legislature's plans.
"We already have tools in place to make government more efficient and effective," Mary Soderberg, executive deputy secretary of the budget, told the House Democratic Policy Committee in Harrisburg, according to a press release. "We need to continue to use those tools."
Officials at the United Way said they are not opposing the cuts outright, but are asking for a series of public hearings on the issue.
Robin Schatz, Federation's director of government affairs, struck a similar chord.
"We don't oppose rethinking the budget," said Schatz, who also attended the briefing. "Nobody wants to see the deficit spiraling out of control. But you don't want to address that at the expense of those who are most at risk."