Proposed budget cuts could land hard in Central Pa.Legal aid, transit, rural airports all face losses
Tim Whelan summed up the potential effect of President Donald Trump's budget proposal on Cumberland County in three words: "serious negative impact."
Whelan is executive director of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities. He is particularly concerned about cuts to the longstanding community development block grant program operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The program, known as CDBG, helps fund local improvement projects such as those undertaken by the Cumberland authorities, and by similar organizations across Pennsylvania and the U.S.
It is slated for elimination under Trump's budget blueprint, released Thursday. Overall, the plan would increase defense spending by $54 billion, according to a Washington Post analysis, while reducing discretionary spending by cutting funding to numerous agencies and eliminating 19 of them altogether.
Critics oppose not only the size of cuts, but the broad range of organizations affected: block grants for Cumberland County communities, capital grants to transit systems, funding to support small regional airfields like Lancaster Airport and legal aid to low-income people across the state are among them.
So, too, is funding for Environmental Protection Agency programs that affect Pennsylvania, such as a program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Organizations facing total defunding include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The potential end of funding for community development block grants worries Whelan.
"The cumulative effect will set back the progress our community has made in improving housing and development work," said Whelan.
Others, however, see Trump's budget proposal as necessary to shrink what they view as bloated government while preserving national defense.
"President Trump’s budget blueprint proposes a significant increase in spending to strengthen national security, rebuild our neglected military and honor our commitment to veterans with additional resources for the (Veterans' Administration)," Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey said in a statement.
"To pay for these changes, it proposes reductions to non-defense programs. After years of overspending, I am encouraged that the president has proposed actual spending cuts and has committed to maintaining the overall cap on discretionary spending," Toomey added.
Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the cuts.
"Thousands of Pennsylvanians rely on programs that are being eliminated or dramatically cut in President Trump’s budget proposal," Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement released Thursday.
“Many communities will be harmed by indiscriminate cuts to housing programs, agriculture investments, and efforts to keep our land and water safe."
Block grants targeted
Part of Trump's budget plan calls for slashing more than $6 billion, or 13 percent of total funding, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also would eliminate the block grant program, which received about $3 billion in funding this year.
Whelan said the authorities receive about $11.5 million annually from HUD through nine separate funding streams.
The Trump administration has said it believes that local governments should be primarily responsible for development programs.
Several HUD programs help with redevelopment of low-income communities and provide a path to homeownership. The loss of CDBG would be especially troublesome for smaller municipalities that lack the resources to tackle redevelopment projects, Whelan said.
"We are especially concerned about the proposed cuts in public housing maintenance and repair funds," Whelan said. "These funds have been diminishing for a number of years, and the continued cuts will bring further harm to the housing stock managed by our housing authority."
He said the proposed cuts would create higher long-term repair costs in the future.
In addition, cutting the housing choice voucher program would be harmful to low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities, Whelan said, while individuals and families could lose access to safe, decent and affordable housing.
Reaction to the budget's potential impact on other services in Pennsylvania included:
The budget would defund the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that is the largest provider of financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.
Last year, that included nearly $12 million to Pennsylvania’s civil legal services organizations, including clients of Harrisburg-based MidPenn Legal Services.
"Cutting funding for this vital program essentially denies equal access to justice and risks the well-being of many vulnerable residents in every corner of our state," said Sara A. Austin, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
Trump's budget would cut federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train services, as well as limiting or eliminating funding and grants for public transit capital programs.
Those changes may not have an immediate or deep impact in the midstate, but they could be felt over time.
Trump's plan targets money-losing long-haul lines that cross vast stretches of the country, suggesting that doing so "would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services," the blueprint states. That include services linking Harrisburg with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
But Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman responded that the Northeast Corridor and state-supported services rely on the long-haul lines to generate connecting traffic, and could suffer as a result.
Meanwhile, capital grants tend to be most heavily used by cities adding or improving rapid transit systems, so local bus operators might not feel a pinch under the plan.
In York County, for example, rabbittransit executive director Richard Farr said his agency does receive federal funding, but does not rely on any of the grant programs eyed for cuts under Trump's budget.
Farr, however, questioned how such a move would advance Trump's own campaign pledges to invest $1 trillion in America's infrastructure.
Trump's infrastructure plan has been under development separately since earlier this month, but was not part of the budget blueprint.
The U.S. Department of Transportation oversees the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which was created after airline deregulation in 1978 to ensure small communities receive a minimal level of scheduled air service.
There are six EAS-designated airports in Pennsylvania, including Lancaster Airport in Manheim Township.
Trump's blueprint argues that the government could save $175 million by killing subsidies to these sparsely used flights.
The new president is not the first to suggest that move, which has been tried — and defeated — before.
As part of its cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Trump's plan would eliminate $73 million in funding to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which coordinates multi-state efforts to reduce pollution flowing into the waterway, including from sources in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell argued that the cuts would reduce funding to Pennsylvania, but not end the state's environmental obligations — including drinking water inspections, sewage and industrial wastewater inspections, brownfield redevelopment — as well as improving water quality in the Susquehanna River and other bodies that flow into the Chesapeake.
"These cuts, if enacted, would harm businesses seeking permits, and harm residents' clean water, air, and land," McDonnell wrote to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Jason Scott, staff writer, contributed to this report.