Did Corbett Budget Live Up To Post-Newtown Mental Health Comments?

Come view my Modest Proposal.

Come view my Modest Proposal.

When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett was asked about how to respond to the Newtown tragedy in December, he told reporters it wasn’t really an issue of guns, but of mental health. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an assault weapon or a handgun,” he said. “It’s a mental health issue that we have to work as hard as we possibly can.”

That suggestion sounded awfully strange to the policy and budget wonks around the state, considering that last year, the governor recommended cutting mental health services in the state by 20 percent. At the time, Philly health commissioner Don Schwarz noted that Corbett’s recommendation would have meant “about 4,000 uninsured individuals with serious mental health illness will lose their outpatient services; 6-8 community walk-in centers for the mentally ill will be eliminated; 437 beds for those at drug and alcohol addiction centers will be gone; 3,000 people with intellectual disabilities will see a reduction in support; and 575 families per year will lose their DHS housing supports.”

By the time the budget got through the legislature last spring, the mental-health cuts were only about 10 percent. And now, Corbett’s approval rating is at a historic low.

Which is why, this year, many were paying attention to what Corbett had planned for his mental health budget. Were his post-Newtown comments pure lip service from an NRA-supporting politician looking to blame anything other than firearms? Or would he actually put his money (well, okay, our money) where his mouth was?

In fact, the governor’s 2013 budget actually does increase funding for mental health services this year — by 4 percent.

“Which was very good news,” said Sharon Ward of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center during a budget webinar yesterday afternoon. “Funding is still below where it was four years ago, but it certainly got an increase. I … think that is very much related to the concerns about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary and the response to that tragedy.”

According to a press release put out by the governor’s office, those new funds will “reduce a waiting list for home and community-based services for individuals with intellectual disabilities, providing services for 1,080 adults graduating from Special Education programs and adults in at-risk situations where their families may not be able to continue caring for them, and 118 adults who receive autism services.”

The governor’s full proposal includes many such proposed increases in funding he’d previously taken away: things like an education, child care services, services for individuals with disabilities. And while that all sounds great, the problems are plentiful. First, many of those funds are contingent on the legislature doing things it probably won’t. A $1 billion increase in education funding would come from privatizing the public alcohol system — something Pennsylvania governors have been attempting for over 20 years and Democrats are not keen on. Second, while the additional funds are nice compared to last year, many are still well below what they were when Corbett came into office.

“This budget was designed to rebuild both the commonwealth and rebuild the governor’s popularity, which has been sagging,” Ward noted in yesterday’s webinar.

To break it down further: Sure, state mental health services’ total funding is now set at $689 million — a four percent hike since last year. But that still means it’s down $28 million from the 2010-2011 budget, which was put into place when Ed Rendell was in office. That overall reduction has come side-by-side with massive corporate tax breaks and the implementation of a plan to lower the Pennsylvania income tax rate from 9.99 percent to 6.99 percent over 10 years, beginning in 2015. And, of course, Corbett decided this week to reject new federal money to expand Medicaid — a decision that John Hanger, a Democrat running for governor in 2014, has already promised he’d reverse upon taking the oath.

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