In Pa. budget crunch, Wolf wants to merge four departments

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Gov. Tom Wolf called the opioid epidemic "an invisible problem" with concrete ramifications.

Facing deepening budget woes, Gov. Wolf is seeking to merge four state agencies that oversee Pennsylvania's massive health and public welfare programs into a single department, according to an email that circulated Friday to state employees who would be affected by the proposal.

Wolf wants to consolidate the Departments of Aging, Health, Human Services, and Drug and Alcohol Programs, according to the email, sent by the secretaries who oversee those departments. An official announcement is scheduled for Monday, according to the message.

It provided no details on how much the merger would save the state or how it would affect state employee jobs. Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said he could not comment, deferring to Monday's announcement.

Abbott also said the proposed merger would require legislative approval.

Tom Herman, president of SEIU Local 668, which represents professional workers, said his union was told that “it will have little impact on the workforce that we represent, although it will have an impact on the management levels.”

While Herman would not say whether he thought the plan was a good idea, he said that the state was overburdened with managers and that breaking down walls among the agencies was a good idea.

“It would help streamline our ability to provide services to Pennsylvanians,” he said.

No timeline was given, Herman said, adding that the administration wanted to act quickly.

David Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13, said he would like to see the details of the governor's plan to better assess its impact on jobs.

"We've never really on a grand scale like this done this before, so I'm not sure exactly what that means," he said.

Early next month, Wolf is scheduled to deliver his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In doing so, the first-term Democratic governor faces a difficult task: New projections this week from the state's Independent Fiscal Office show the state could face a potential two-year shortfall of nearly $3 billion.

Wolf is also contending with a Republican-controlled legislature that has made it clear it will not accept proposals to increase the state's sales and income taxes, which could raise substantial revenue.

 The governor has released few details about his proposed budget. But he has promised a plan that will rely on streamlining or cutting services for savings rather than broad-based tax increases.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leaders, said they do not know the details of the governor's plan but are open to the idea of consolidating agencies.  "We're glad he took our call to look at ways to restructure, redesign state government seriously," Miskin said.

Staff writer Don Sapatkin contributed to this article.

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