"You can have the best idea in the world, but if it isn't in the budget, it's not going to happen," said Sen. David Argall during a community discussion held Thursday in the community room of the ABC Hi-Rise in Tamaqua as part of the Tamaqua Chamber of Commerce's breakfast mixer. "We are about two thirds of the way through the budget hearings today."
"In Harrisburg, when you are $4 billion in the hole, you have a choice… you can raise taxes or cut spending," stressed Argall.
"The terrible recession of 2008/2009, the worst since Herbert Hoover, is finally coming to the end," added Argall. "A year ago, in January, the state of Pennsylvania was 497 million dollars in the hole. This January we are looking at a budget surplus of 153 million. It's not the best of times, but it's a heck of a lot better than it was a year or two ago."
"One of the other areas where we were able to save a fair amount of money is on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative," said Argall, who added that Harrisburg has been looking to better control the Department of Correction's budget. "Now based on what other states have been doing, Pennsylvania is getting a little smarter on correction's policy. He added, "murderers, rapists and other serious crimes – you will go to jail – no if ands or buts. But there are some folks that could probably use an ankle bracelet and a monitor for a few hundred dollars a year rather than locking them up in a prison where it costs us more than sending your kid to Princeton or Harvard or Yale." He continued, "We are hoping to save hundreds of millions of dollars thru that initiative. In the last two years was the first time the department of correct budget actually leveled out instead o going up and up and up."
Argall and Representative Jerry Knowles spoke about ways of putting budget restrictions on the Department of Public Welfare. "The one area that should save us millions of dollars, although it is still being beta tested, is this radical idea from the state of Florida." Florida's Public Welfare requires drug felons to pass a drug test before being given assistance. "We don't believe the tax payer should have to pay for someone's illegal drug habit," stressed Argall. "The people with a genuine need, a serious mental or physical handicap, they will get the help that they need. Others, who have in the past, found loop holes, to sit at home and collect a check from the state when they were perfectly able to work – we've really trying to eliminate that. It seems like every time we solve a loophole, they find another one. That keeps us busy. We have continued to put that focus on the Department of Public Welfare."
"The budget is certainly the toughest one you make," said Knowles. "Under the previous administration, the budget grew from $20 billion to over $28 billion dollars; which was a 40 percent increase." This year's proposed budget is 28.44 billion. Of that, 40 percent goes to education, 39 percent goes to Department of Welfare, and 7 percent goes to Department of Corrections."It's framework. It's a beginning. It's a starting point," said Knowles, describing the proposed budget. "Budget numbers will shift in terms of priorities of the Senate and priorities from the state," said Knowles. "Our leadership key will eventually hammer out something that is acceptable for the majority of the folks in the House and the Senate - that are willing to sign."
"I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the budget," added Knowles. "If there is something in there that you would like to see change or see, contact Sen. Argall or myself. I'm not saying that it will happen, but we want to hear what is important to you. It is important to me to know how you feel about budget," said Knowles, who stressed the importance of receiving feedback from residents.
Argall and Knowles also talked about the importance of dealing with blight and finding State, county and municipal projects that work. "One of my new roles as chairman of Urban Affairs and Housing is try to expand some of the successful plans that have worked in our area," said Argall. "If I learned anything on this job, I've learned blight is blight. It can hurt a small community. It can hurt a large community. And if you don't stop it, it grows like a cancer." Pointing out progresses in Tamaqua, Argall said, "Revitalization can spread as well."
Both also talked about the State's transportation, education and privatizing the sale of liquor and their affects the budget.
Talking about his pursuit of eliminating State property tax, Argall, said, "In the next two weeks, I am scheduled to sit down with half of the Senate Republicans. I currently have 13 co-sponsors, and need 26."
"The funny thing about doing a budget is that everybody wants you to cut back on everybody else," said Knowles.