The Corbett budget plan: his legacy on the line

The governor's legacy should include intelligent reform of human services

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On Tuesday Gov. Tom Corbett will present his budget proposals to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Since last year's budget was presented only days after he took office, this year's budget proposals will truly begin to define his vision for Pennsylvania and put his unique stamp on how the commonwealth addresses its critical and daunting issues.

With a year of experience as governor and his team fully in place, this is the moment when Tom Corbett's legacy starts taking shape. Interestingly, the timing of the governor's address coincides with last week's national political discussion about whether candidates for president are concerned about the plight of the very poor. This is an opportune moment for Gov. Corbett to show that he is both a wise and compassionate leader, consistent with what we hear from those know him well, who describe Tom Corbett as kind, caring and deliberate.

Among many pressing issues (public transportation, roads and bridges, taxes, Marcellus Shale drilling) and responsibilities, the governor is also the leader of essential human services. For more than five decades, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania has organized and financed human services through a state-funded, county-operated arrangement. These human services have benefited from bipartisan support as they help some of the state's most vulnerable citizens: people with disabilities; abused and neglected children; disadvantaged children; frail seniors; people struggling without homes, utilities or food; workers needing retraining; and public health protection.

In these tough economic times when these human services are needed more than ever, available state revenue is unfortunately reduced. For those who work tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged citizens, there is serious anxiety that Tuesday's budget proposal will bring more slashing of our safety net, with all the dire consequences to people truly in need and for the hard-working employees who struggle with modest wages.

Citizens who care about these vital services are braced for bad news -- really bad news -- from Harrisburg. Revenue projections are down, human need is increasing, and costs continue to rise. And this is heaped on top of five straight years of reduced state funding for services. As human service funding falls, the human toll mounts, with longer waiting lists, reduced services and closing of services and programs.

Until now, the Corbett administration has distinguished itself through efforts to cut waste, fraud and abuse, restrict the number of people on food stamps and cut social service budgets. On top of this, 90,000 children have now reportedly been removed from state-funded health care.

The Campaign for What Works, a joint initiative of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership (hundreds of nonprofit agencies), The Pittsburgh Foundation and United Way of Allegheny County, is helping human and social service providers demonstrate that what they do matters and pressing for intelligent public policy decisions. We hope to hear a positive vision from the governor that has his unique blend of wise decisions and compassion. We have offered a number of suggestions to his administration that could immediately help counties and nonprofits do their work better, leading to greater effectiveness and efficiency to achieve the biggest impact possible at a time of limited resources.

We propose a guiding principle that the state financially support human services that work for both the participant and for taxpayers. To successfully implement a "support what works" approach, we must identify what is effectiveness (results for the participants) and what is efficiency (saving taxpayers unnecessary remedial costs -- prisons, jails, institutionalization, out-of-home placements, etc. -- over time).

As in all work in all sectors, the current efforts by the state-county partners vary greatly in effectiveness. Yet, state funding for these county-sponsored human services is mostly distributed based on formulas that do not reward effectiveness or efficiency. We propose changes to the funding systems that will reward results and efforts that save taxpayers unnecessary remedial costs at later times.

We propose that state policy and appropriations be shifted to and based upon generally accepted aims of (1) effectiveness; (2) efficiency; (3) collaboration; and (4) innovation. We further propose that leading business leaders cooperatively work with human service leaders to advance human services in this way.

The past couple of decades have brought both proven and promising models for innovation in human services. Many of these models (integration of human services for the same family, quality early childhood education, parenting and family support programs, etc.) have been established and should be more broadly implemented. Now is the time to recognize counties that have been advancing and challenge others to initiate these reforms.

Let's hope Tom Corbett takes steps to make intelligent reform of human services a major part of his legacy. As state government becomes smaller, Pennsylvanians need effective and proven programs that produce results and ultimately save us money. As I have said before, intelligent reform can be a defining legacy if Mr. Corbett continually asks two questions: Is there proof that the program works? Will it save us misery and money in the long run?


Bob Nelkin is president of United Way of Allegheny County.


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