Democrats on the Senate panel challenged Alexander to justify the Corbett administration's budget vision of continuing tax cuts for businesses while paring back health and social services for the state's poor, elderly, and disabled.
In his budget blueprint for the fiscal year beginning in July, Corbett is proposing roughly $620 million in cuts and savings to human services programs. They include eliminating cash payments to poor adults, cutting aid by 20 percent for county-run social service programs, and reducing reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes serving the poor.
Those changes come on top of reports that 89,000 children have been dropped from the state's Medicaid rolls since August, and the administration's plan to impose an assets test, come May, on people seeking to receive food stamps.
"The big cats are being taken care of," said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, referring to $275 million in proposed tax cuts for businesses in Corbett's budget.
But in nearly three hours on the hot seat, Alexander kept coming back to his central point: that as long as state revenues grow at lackluster rates in a tight economy, Pennsylvanians cannot sustain public welfare costs growing 9 to 10 percent annually.
The 2.7 million total he cited includes several overlapping categories. About 2.2 million residents receive welfare benefits, including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, and Medicaid. Others include children enrolled in the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), said Welfare Department spokeswoman Carey Miller. About 1.8 million of Pennsylvania's 12.7 million residents receive food stamps.
Alexander said that the vast majority of programs the department administers are shared with the federal government, and that the state has little or no flexibility to make changes in those areas.
As a result, he said, he has had to narrow his focus onto state-funded aid programs - which he maintained are more generous than what many other states offer.
Regarding the department's new assets test for food-stamp applicants, Alexander said it was meant to address the small number of Pennsylvanians who he said are receiving stamps even though they "have the ways and means to pay for their own food."
"The food stamp program was designed for the neediest citizens," said Alexander. "What we are saying is, if somebody has the ways and means to use their own resources first, they should be doing that before coming to the government."
Under the Welfare Department's plan for asset testing, food stamps will not be available to households with people under 60 who have $5,500 or more in assets. For households with people 60 and older, that cap would rise to $9,000.
Houses, retirement benefits, and one car would not be counted as assets. Any additional auto worth more than $4,650 would be counted.
The department originally sought to institute an asset limit of $2,000 for people under 60 and $3,250 for those who are older, but officials revised those limits upward after a public outcry.
In Tuesday's hearing, Alexander also attempted to explain the department's efforts to cut what he called "waste, fraud, and abuse," but his remarks did little to appease Democrats on the panel who see those efforts as little more than thinly veiled excuses to boot people off welfare.
The secretary was hard-pressed to put an exact dollar figure on how much the department is reaping through cracking down on fraud and abuse, prompting Sen. John Blake (D., Lackawanna) to ask Alexander to provide committee members with a specific tally of any such savings.
Said Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny): "I think some of the administration's ideologues, and the governor himself, need to get out a little bit more and talk to some of the individuals who are receiving these services."
To which Alexander replied: "It is not ideology. This is a fiscal reality. . . . We are faced with a serious fiscal crisis in this state."
One senator agreed. "It's easy for us to sit here and question your approach, but the fact of the matter is, you are faced with a monumental task," said Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster). "And that is, setting some parameters around these programs."
Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.