Editorial: Balancing act

Posted: August 04, 2010

The Senate will hold an important vote Wednesday aimed at helping Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and dozens of other states avoid deeper cuts in services and layoffs.

Senators should approve a $26 billion package that includes about $600 million in extended Medicaid assistance to Pennsylvania. Even with that aid, officials in Harrisburg will need to further trim the state's $28.2 billion budget.

That's because Gov. Rendell and the legislature "balanced" the state budget last month with an anticipated $850 million in extra aid from the federal government. They did so even though the U.S. Senate in late June failed to allocate the money, unable to overcome Republicans' objections about adding to the deficit.

Since then, Democratic lawmakers in Washington have been working to offset the cost of the bill with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. It's unclear whether their efforts will persuade any GOP senators to vote for the measure.

Concern over the long-term deficit is well-founded. But senators also need to recognize the urgent economic reality facing their states.

This money is needed to pay for states' Medicaid spending on health-care coverage for low-income people, whose ranks have grown during this prolonged recession.

If the legislation fails to pass again, Rendell has predicted thousands of layoffs of state and local government workers, as well as teachers. He anticipates there would be deeper cuts in social services such as drug and alcohol counseling and domestic-abuse shelters.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has indicated that one possible area to cut would be the state's $250 million increase for K-12 basic education. Schools should be the last target for cutting.

It's true that Rendell has consistently boosted education spending over the past eight years. But the state's share of spending on education is still far short of the level recommended in 2007 by a state Board of Education study. And Rendell did scale back his requested increase for public schools during earlier budget negotiations.

Of the package in the U.S. Senate, $10 billion would go toward preventing teacher layoffs and $16.1 billion to help governors close budget gaps in the first half of 2011. Both funds would essentially extend provisions of the $787 billion economic recovery act approved by Congress in February 2009.

Democratic leaders in Congress have signaled their intention to comply with Republicans' efforts to drastically scale back President Obama's spending requests when lawmakers resume their appropriations work in the fall. This vote on Medicaid assistance should be the last, best chance to send more relief to states still grappling with the effects of the recession.