Commission reacts to budget

Area officials have been keeping a close eye on the state's budget proceedings and are anxious to see the "trickle-down" effect that it will have at a local level.According to Eric Bridges, executive director of the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission [NCPRPDC], the spending plan will impact the six-county region that the entity serves."It's been a busy three weeks and if anyone looks at my car tires, you'll notice the tires show that there have been a lot of trips back and forth to D.C. and Harrisburg," Bridges said. "Since the budget came out, there have been a lot of issues to look at to see where things stand. "There are still a lot more questions and uncertainties with respect to the changes in Gov. Corbett's budget proposal."Before the governor's version of the budget was completed, Bridges conferred with colleagues for several months in an effort to find the right path to take for the commission's future."We talked for several months about what I envisioned and how we would position ourselves as a commission and by and large, we were pretty dead on," Bridges said. "In the context of economic and political realities, and fiscal constraints, with a $4 billion to $4.5 billion deficit, we knew there would be some significant changes not only to numbers and resources available, but also significant changes to the way in which, from an economic growing standpoint, the state supports its delivery system. "We were betting on great opportunities for regional organizations to kind of emerge and establish themselves in a different way and I think by and large, the governor's proposal does exactly that."The initial budget calls for the elimination of nearly $550 million in basic education funding and another $650 million in higher education costs for state and state-related schools.There also would be 1,550 state positions eliminated, including 1,211 from the Department of Public Welfare.Even as the state's Environmental Protection Agency seeks to keep a closer watch on Marcellus Shale gas drilling, the EPA will see its funding slashed by $7 million. The state's Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) could possibly have its budget cut by 32 percent, as much as $114 million in proposed cuts.Corbett's administration has reportedly said the DCED is a "maze of separate programs" that has bloated out of control and is susceptible to manipulation by legislators looking out for pet projects."There have been several discussions from the secretary down to administrative and executive staff that has done nothing but reinforce that," Bridges said. "There is a lot of work to be done and [officials] are looking at us as a key part of the delivery system. There is a commitment to getting this done and there is also the recognition that we as a regional commission serving a six-county area, we need to be and are being looked at as a leader in development."But the resources that the commission previously depended on will now reportedly be more difficult to attain."The challenge is that the resources that we've been able to depend on and rely on in the past to carry on our economic development work are now gone-- they have been disencumbered-- they are no longer entitled to just us-- they are being separated and put into a pool, and we have to figure out ultimately how we will compete for those dollars and I'm confident that we'll be able to do that," Bridges said.