HARRISBURG -- As many as 20 counties could receive human service funding in block grants under a proposal that cleared the Senate Friday, delivering a portion of a change pushed by the Corbett administration.
Counties participating in the pilot program would have more discretion in how they spend state money for programs including child welfare, drug treatment and homeless assistance. The welfare legislation resolved another subject of budgetary dispute by postponing the end of the state-funded cash assistance program for one month.
Gov. Tom Corbett had championed the use of block grants for county welfare programs, saying that combining the payments would give counties more flexibility to target local needs. In February, he proposed replacing seven budget lines with block grants for all counties.
The most prominent opposition to the plan came from the Republican chairman of the House Human Services Committee, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, who argued earlier this week that a sudden switch to block grants could threaten services for the most vulnerable.
The version that passed the Senate allows up to 20 counties to combine their funding for human services over a five-year transition. Next year, counties would have to spend 80 percent of their appropriation in each category -- such as intellectual disabilities -- for those services. That limit would decline each year, until in the year beginning July 2017, the counties would have full flexibility to spend their human services money where needed.
Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration supports the proposal.
The human services under the proposal will receive a 10 percent funding cut in the budget that cleared the Senate Friday, a restoration from a 20 percent cut proposed by Mr. Corbett.
The block grant proposal was supported by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, where the executive director, Douglas Hill, said he expects counties will fill all 20 slots.
"If it's successful, we will be pursuing a clear path for the remaining 47 counties to have the option to join," he said.
In Washington County, Commissioner Larry Maggi said he agrees that local officials are best positioned to target funding where needed. But he said that task would become more difficult with a 10 percent funding cut.
"The upside to that is who would better know who needs money than the local government, rather than somebody in Harrisburg deciding who should get the money here in Washington County?" he said. "The downside is the state keeps cutting those dollars, and they look to us -- the commissioners, the local government -- to fill that gap."
Mr. Maggi said he could see Washington County opting into the pilot program, but the decision remains to be made with the two other commissioners.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas, by contrast, said he will encourage his colleagues to decide against the program. Mr. Kopas said state officials are foisting tough decisions onto local officials by merging reduced funding into a single grant. And he worried combining the lines would ease the way for future reductions.
"Anytime you put money into a block grant, it becomes a dollar figure," he said. "The further you move from the people at the end of the line, the easier it is to cut. I've seen this act before."
The legislation heading to the House also extends the end of the general assistance cash benefit program one month to Aug. 1. Sen. Vince Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said his caucus spent 90 minutes on Thursday discussing an extension with Secretary Gary Alexander of the Department of Public Welfare. The department had mailed letters telling recipients about the end of the program.
"It's very cruel to end a program just like that," said Mr. Hughes, after a Senate panel approved the extension. "Historically, people would get 30, 60, 90 days when changes like this occur."
Residents who received cash assistance would have gotten their final check on Friday, but now will receive payment on the last Friday in July. In McKeesport, Gerald Ragin, 46, said his monthly allotment of $205 -- along with food stamps -- make up his monthly budget.
After learning the program would end, Mr. Ragin applied to receive Social Security disability payments. He has been unable to work since February, he said, because of medical problems.
"I understand some people that are getting welfare are able to work," he said. "They're just trying to milk the system. But then you have those who actually can't work, and they're going to catch the bad end of it."
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. Laura Olson contributed. First Published June 30, 2012 12:00 AM