SHENANGO VALLEY Legislators explain where the budget surplus went

A shaky economy could spell problems for a number of state programs, officials said.
SHARON, Pa. -- What happened to the big budget surplus that Pennsylvania had earmarked for senior citizens programs at the end of its 2000-01 fiscal year?
That's what at least one Shenango Valley resident wanted to know during the annual Mercer County League of Women Voters Legislative Interview session Friday at the Shenango Valley Community Library.
The term "surplus" may have been a misnomer, suggested state Rep. Rod Wilt of Greenville, R-17th, one of four legislators attending the session.
People have a misconception about the $600 million surplus the state had at the end of the last fiscal year, he said, explaining that state law allows only 15 percent of such a surplus to be stashed away for specific programs.
The rest must be rolled over as a beginning cash balance in the next fiscal year and the surplus disappears, he said.
Pennsylvania did put 15 percent of that $600 million into the state's Rainy Day Fund, which now exceeds $1 billion, he added.
Sen. Robert Robbins of Greenville, R-50th, said he was unaware of any special surplus earmarked for senior citizens.
There may have been some dollars available in the state lottery fund which finances a lot of senior citizen programs but, as the economy faltered, so did programs like the lottery fund, and the surpluses disappeared, he said.
Other programs: The uncertainty of the state's economy on a year-to-year basis also prompted all four legislators to decline from promising long-term funding for the state's Growing Greener programs designed to support local conservation projects.
Funding for those programs expires at the end of fiscal 2003-04 and money will likely run short for the next two years as well.
"There are programs we all would like to support, if the dollars are there," said Rep. Richard Stevenson of Grove City, R-8th.
Rep. Michael Gruitza of Hermitage, D-7th, didn't promise additional funding but said he wants to ensure there is equitable distribution of funds within those programs.
Mercer County may not be getting its fair share, he said.
The state budget is based on the success of the economy and it's very difficult to make multiyear funding commitments, Wilt said. He said he doesn't know if the state will be in a position to fully support Growing Greener in the future.
"We're still a one-year budget," Robbins said, adding that he will pledge to support the major Growing Greener programs that have shown success such as the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority and the county conservation district programs. Those will remain, he predicted.

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