HARRISBURG -- The future of a controversial pilot program that combines seven different types of human services funding into one block grant to counties is unclear after a Senate committee voted Tuesday to expand the program, while a House committee voted to curtail it.
Twenty counties -- among them Allegheny -- were part of a block grant pilot program last year that merged different funding sources for mental health and intellectual disability community programs, child welfare special grants, homeless assistance, behavioral health services, drug and alcohol funds and other services. All 67 counties, regardless of whether they were part of the program or not, took a 10 percent cut last year in human services funding.
The Corbett administration is pushing to expand the block grant to any county that wants to participate. The Senate bill, which advanced out of the public health and welfare committee Tuesday, would allow any county to opt in to the program.
"I think it allows local government to work at its best," said Sen. Pat Vance, a Republican from Cumberland County who heads the committee. "And local government truly should know the people in their district better."
Many county commissioners and county human services officials say such increased flexibility is something they have wanted for decades and would allow for greater local decision-making tailored to local needs.
"[County officials want] to use the flexibility to make sure people come first and we aren't focusing on line items or silos," said Brinda Carroll-Penyak, deputy director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
But critics, including many human service advocacy groups, say the block grant could have the effect of pitting people in need of services -- such as homeless people or those with disabilities -- against each other. They also argue that pilot results have not been studied enough to expand the program.
"These are chronically underfunded programs to begin with, and the further the state removes itself from the customers, the easier future cuts become," said Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas. "Legislators lose responsibility, and foist yet more on the counties."
"I would prefer that we know the results of the pilot before even making it voluntary for the rest of the counties... At least anecdotally, the results that I've seen and heard about are very negative," said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, speaking in Tuesday's hearing.
The University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics examined the implementation of the program in Greene, Venango, Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties in a paper published earlier this year.
The paper, which did not take a position on the issue, noted that "while the block provides greater flexibility than the previous categorical line items, it may also be easier to reduce a block grant budget than individual line items. County administrators have stressed that they could not handle any further budget cuts without seriously affecting the quality of service delivery to the consumer."
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.