(photo: Dbenbenn / wikimedia)

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

Some details emerged Thursday about the state budget framework unveiled midweek by Governor Tom Corbett and legislative leaders, but questions still remain. More details may be available later today when budget spreadsheets are released.

Funding for county human services is one area that appears to be in flux, as some House Republicans continue to voice concerns about a plan to block grant and cut that funding.

A number of GOP House lawmakers want to add more dollars for the mental health and mental disability programs in that mix, said [Rep. Mario] Scavello.

A Senate-approved bill restores half of the $168 million spending cut for the human services programs initially proposed by Mr. Corbett. House members would like to restore even more money but have to balance that with cuts elsewhere, he added.

Although the statewide association representing county commissioners recently agreed to a two-year phase-in for the block grant, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, Bensalem, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he’s trying to stop the block grant altogether and substitute a pilot program for several counties instead …

The seven programs considered for a block grant include community mental health and mental disability services, the human services development fund, homeless assistance, child welfare grants, the Behavorial Health Services Initiative and Act 152 drug and alcohol treatment programs.

While there is some hope for restoring more funds to county human services, one area that appeared not to make the cut is the state’s General Assistance Program. The governor proposed — and legislative leaders appear to have agreed to — eliminating this modest benefit for temporarily disabled adults, which will have a devastating on nearly 70,000 Pennsylvanians striving to avoid homelessness and build a better life for themselves.

One item unlikely to survive, despite protests from church groups and advocates for the poor, is the so-called general assistance program that provides cash benefits to nearly 70,000 temporarily disabled adults. Corbett proposed eliminating the funding, and legislative leaders did not seek to restore it.

Brenda Freeman of West Philadelphia, who has peripheral edema, which swells tissues in her arms and legs, said that program had been “my only income.” Freeman, 38, whose condition makes it very difficult to stand or sit for long periods and who telephoned The Inquirer to protest the cut, said: “What am I going to have to do — eat out of a trash can?”

“There still is a chance to do something,” she said. “I’m hoping that they do the right thing.”

Pennsylvania’s public schools and universities are likely to see no change in their funding, after sustaining deep cuts in the budget enacted last year.

On Thursday afternoon, the House Appropriations Committee approved funding bills for the four state-related universities as well as the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Though he stopped short of confirming that the schools — Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh — would be flat-funded at current levels, “we are working toward that idea,” said Drew Crompton, the chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

The four schools were targeted for 30 percent cuts in Corbett’s $27.14 billion budget proposal unveiled in February. An amended version of the budget approved by the Senate this spring would fund at current levels: Penn State at $227 million; Temple at $139 million; Lincoln at $11 million and the University of Pittsburgh at $136 million.

Crompton said budget negotiators are moving in a similar direction with the state system schools … The schools would be maintained at their current level of $412 million.

Finally, multiple newspapers are reporting that Accountability Block Grants, which support full-day kindergarten and other early childhood programs, will be restored to $100 million after the governor proposed eliminating them. More funding will likely be approved for distressed schools and to expand the state Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which allows businesses to donate to private school scholarships and recover most, if not all, of their contribution through tax benefits.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said negotiators told him the tentative agreement includes $25 million to expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which is currently funded at $75 million. An additional $50 million would be available to students who attend a school among the state’s lowest-achieving 15 percent.