State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Adam Smeltz: More Tough Times Expected as Corbett Readies Budget Proposal

on February 06, 2012 7:40 AM

News that's hit State College over the past three months has crashed down in largely unpredictable waves.

But here's one wave we can predict:

Between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Tom Corbett will introduce a state budget proposal that could well squeeze -- anew -- a range of public entities.

The governor's office has successfully guarded details of the proposal. (His budget address will be carried live on PCN.) But for months, state-funded agencies and institutions have been girding again for the worst, ready to take a hit after a bruising budget cycle in 2011.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson, addressing the university trustees on Jan. 20, warned of "what appears to be a very difficult budget cycle for the commonwealth.

"These financial matters directly influence in-state student access and affordability, research in the agricultural sciences, our ability to offer extension education, and outreach services such as public broadcasting," Erickson said in prepared remarks.

Penn State already lost about $68 million -- about 19 percent -- of its state funding for the 2012 fiscal year. The decline, the key element behind scores of university job losses in the past seven-or-so months, was part of a statewide effort to address a roughly $4 billion state-budget deficit.

Further revenue shortfalls prompted Corbett to announce an early-January freeze for many state entities, a move that trimmed another $11.4 million from Penn State's '11-'12 state funding. The university's Cooperative Extension and agricultural-research areas have been hit especially hard, though they were spared from the latest round of reductions this winter.

Of course, the higher-ed figures don't take into account the funding losses seen by public school districts or social services. In Centre County alone, K-12 schools' state-funding declines reached into the millions of dollars for the 2011-2012 school year.

Now, their worries about what'll happen next are rooted heavily -- once more -- in the numbers. With the 2012 fiscal year more than halfway over, state-revenue collections have been running about $500 million behind expectations, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted over the weekend.

The governor himself has said he expects this budgeting cycle to be similar to the last one, the newspaper reported.

Having pledged not to raise taxes, Corbett has said before that Pennsylvania has little choice but to roll up its sleeves, accept economic hard times for what they are, and go about the tough work of belt-tightening.

Elsewhere, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that activists are rallying in anticipation of another round of cuts. Some, as The Inquirer indicated, are concerned about whether a more severe hit may be in the works for social services.

Meanwhile, some college students have fired a preemptive shot across lawmakers' bow, having rallied already against the idea of more cuts for their institutions. The Patriot-News reported on that, along with Corbett's push for more open-records access.

However news of Corbett's proposal unfolds this week, here's an important element to bear in mind: His proposal is just that -- a blueprint, a starting point. It marks the beginning of formal negotiations among state lawmakers, a process that normally lingers well into the spring and even into the summer.

It is not, by any stretch, a done deal.

To that end, Pennsylvanians would do well to see Tuesday less as an end game -- and more as a rallying point, no matter where they stand on Corbett's specific proposals. It's a moment for civic engagement, for speaking up, for citizen leadership.

It's worth remembering: The governor's initial budget plan last year offered a roughly 50 percent cut in Penn State funding. The trim was later moderated to less than half that amount.

This time around, we'll look forward to what you have to say.

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