$1 billion in prison spending sought in Pennsylvania Education still leads state expeditures at $7.4 billion

March 05, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBIUNE

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania's Gov. Tom Ridge is proposing to spend more than $1 billion a year to keep criminals behind bars.

Ridge's proposed 7 percent increase in the Department of Corrections budget boosts the agency's annual general-fund spending to $1.05 billion.

That means Corrections becomes the fourth state agency to top the billion-dollar mark in state funding within the $17.8 billion general-fund budget.

The leader is education at $7.4 billion, followed by public welfare at $5.7 billion. (Transportation's $3.9 billion budget comes mostly from the Motor License Fund, which is paid by drivers in fees and gasoline taxes.)

Pennsylvania joins five other states spending at least $1 billion on jails. The leader, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, is California at $3.6 billion, with Texas at $1.8 billion, New York at $1.6 billion, Michigan at $1.3 billion, and Florida at $1.2 billion.

Those states, with Pennsylvania, are among the most populous in the nation and have the largest inmate populations.

In the Pennsylvania Senate, Democratic Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow made note of this year's Corrections Department boost and the 2.3 percent increase Ridge, a Republican, proposed for basic and higher education. "Perhaps if our commitment to education were as strong as our commitment to get tough on crime, our prison system would not consume so much of our state budget," he said.

In the budget for basic education - the amount used for items ranging from textbooks to teacher salaries - funding increases have paled compared with corrections spending.

In fiscal 1987-1988, the education line-item was $2.4 billion ($3.32 billion when adjusted for inflation). In fiscal 1998-1999, Ridge has proposed $3.6 billion. That's a 52 percent boost, or a 7 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.

With corrections spending at $239 million in 1987-1988 ($0.34 billion when adjusted for inflation), the Ridge proposal means the department's budget has more than quadrupled over the decade - or increased 212 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Administration officials say that the state's commitment to education also includes millions of dollars for special education, pupil transportation and higher education.

Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok noted that increases in corrections spending began before Ridge got to Harrisburg. Since Ridge took office in 1995, prison funding has gone up 29 percent, compared with 57 percent under the previous four years.

Michael Hackman, associate executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy group, said it was unfortunate the money spent on corrections could not be used to keep people out of jail.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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