Sunday, November 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Corbett's budget will give Philadelphia more flexibility to run its programs -- though it also cuts some of those programs

In addition to unveiling his choices about how much to spend on different priorities, Gov. Corbett used his budget yesterday to announce some changes in how government will dole out money.

Corbett's budget will give Philadelphia more flexibility to run its programs -- though it also cuts some of those programs

Gov. Corbett (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Gov. Corbett (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

In addition to unveiling his choices about how much to spend on different priorities, Gov. Corbett used his budget yesterday to announce some changes in how government will dole out money.

From the administration’s “Budget Overview”:

The budget will begin to fundamentally transform the relationship between the state and local governments and the delivery of critical services in education and human services. The budget will place several K-12 education funding streams into a block grant, providing greater flexibility for local school districts … In human services, a number of state-funded and county-administered programs will be converted from various categorical programs to a single block grant.

Instead of saying to municipalities like the city of Philadelphia, “here is your money for homeless programs,” and “here is your money for mental health services,” the state will just give the city a chunk of money for human services, to distribute as it sees fit. Same goes for a lot of education funding.

The rationale for this approach is that municipalities gain more flexibility to put money where it’s needed. For instance – and totally hypothetically – if the city were to decide it has more than enough for homeless programs, but not enough for mental health, it could move that money around without violating state rules. Depending on what regulations the state lays out, the city could also design programs differently to fit Philadelphia’s specific needs, including perhaps providing more holistic services, because funding will have fewer strings attached to it.

Of course, the flip side of this is that municipalities will now also be free to make bad decisions. (The “categorical” approach the governor is doing away with is designed to do the city's thinking for it.) Instead, the administration says, it will measure performance. Rather than making municipalities accountable for spending money in a certain way, the state’s plan is to hold them accountable for results.

All of which sounds reasonable – though there’s a twist. Some of the programs being folded into block grants will also see funding cuts. Homeless services, for instance, will receive 80 percent of what they got last year. The Corbett administration says that “efficiencies will be gained at the local level through additional flexibility and elimination of a number of categorical compliance activities,” meaning basically that municipalities won’t have to spend so much damn money doing paperwork for the state. But they may have to spend some more money to design and implement new programs. 

Mayor Nutter, at least, isn’t buying the cutbacks, telling the Inquirer “More flexibility with less money is not a formula for success.”

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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