Monday, June 13, 2011

Budget Talks Move into Final Weeks

With final state budget negotiations set to kick off next week, health care advocates are making one last pitch to save Pennsylvania’s $339 million dollar Tobacco Settlement Fund.

Since 2001, money from a settlement big tobacco companies negotiated with Pennsylvania and other states has funded medical research, health care programs and prescription drug plans. Corbett wants to keep the programs in place, but merge them into to Pennsylvania’s General Fund.

Vince Hughes, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s worried the change could lead to the elimination of those initiatives. “If it flows into the General Fund, we then could possibly be going down a slippery slope of year after year utilizing this money to deal with other unintended issues,” he said. “In the budget that was passed by the House, uncompensated care, again, a critical line for our hospitals, was eliminated. We would expect that the same fate would happen to the other health-related programs,” added Sharon Ward, the director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, at a rotunda press conference.

The initial House budget merged the Tobacco and General Fund, but speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club last month, House Speaker Sam Smith said he’s willing to change his mind. “I can see us maybe pushing back from where the governor started on his budget, albeit we kind of marched in step with him at this juncture,” he explained. “But we clearly discussed the pros and cons of switching that back to what it currently is, as opposed to where he was taking it.”