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Protesters urge Rendell budget veto

200 rally against proposed cutbacks

Thursday, March 20, 2003

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nearly 200 protesters, including County Council members in suits and ACCESS riders in wheelchairs, rallied in Market Square yesterday afternoon, calling on Gov. Ed Rendell to veto the 2003-04 budget he proposed.

Alice M. Nixon of the Fairywood Citizens Council cheers yesterday during a rally against Gov. Ed Rendell's budget proposal. Nearly 200 protesters, including some County Council members, took part in the rally in Market Square. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

The lunchtime assembly cheered and jeered as a dozen speakers described the impact of the nearly $30 million cut in funding on transit and human services in Allegheny County.

"We are outraged by this budget," shouted Paul Lodico, co-coordinator of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. "This budget must be stopped. ... We want a human budget."

Several speakers, including Molly Rush of the Thomas Merton Center and Ali Hebshi of the Pittsburgh Social Forum, made a connection between the cost of a war with Iraq and the U.S. government's cuts in human service funding.

The $100 billion President Bush is seeking to cover the cost of reconstruction after a war could pay off every state's deficit and save programs serving vulnerable people, said Rush, who had left a peace demonstration to attend the budget rally.

"Injustice flows from the federal government down to the state and then to the city," she said.

Rendell has indicated he may veto portions of the state budget today and send those back to the Legislature for reconsideration. But the protesters demanded yesterday that he veto the entire $21 billion spending plan and start over, allowing residents time to discuss the proposals. The budget, which does not require a tax increase, was adopted by the Legislature just days after Rendell offered it, eliminating all of the normal procedures for public comment.

The rally, organized by the Thomas Merton Center's Save Our Transit project, occurred just days after Port Authority officials said the proposed reduction in state funding could lead to fare increases and service decreases.

The county Department of Human Services estimated this week that the proposed state budget would cut $25.6 million from programs ranging from drug treatment to the homemaker help that keeps handicapped people from being institutionalized. Services to nearly 19,000 Allegheny County residents would end, and countless program workers would lose their jobs.

The budget also would eliminate $4.7 million in Human Service Development Funds, which provide independent living programs for the disabled, after-school mentoring and tutoring for students, and addiction recovery counseling for those in jail.

Lois Berry of Northern Home Care told the group how devastated her handicapped clients would be without the services, as workers from a similar program, Community Human Services, stood behind her with a sign calling for restoration of the funds. The sign, taped to a cane and a crutch, was held aloft by Fran Goldston and Bea Caruso.

County Council members Rich Fitzgerald, James Fenton and Brenda Frazier voiced their objections to the cuts. Describing herself as one of Rendell's strongest supporters, Frazier demanded that he veto the budget.

Chuck Schwarzwaelder, of Whitehall, who volunteers at a drop-in center for the mentally ill provided by Mercy Behavioral Health, said of the politicians who approved the cuts:

"They are out of their minds."

Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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