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Health Agency Consolidation May Be Another Sign Of Worsening State Budget Crisis

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- There are growing signs of a worsening budget crisis for Pennsylvania.

There's word of a deficit that could reach $3 billion, and many cuts in services are on the way. The latest victim could be the state's Health and Human Services programs.

For many years now, dating back to the Rendell administration, there's been a budget crisis in Harrisburg. Until now, they've been able to balance the budget by using one-time gimmicks, such as raiding the rainy day fund.

But we continue to have a structural deficit, and that means we're spending more than we're taking in.

Those gimmicks may have run out, and now state services could be greatly reduced.

Already this week, we've learned that one or more of the state's colleges may be close or merged. Western Penitentiary here in Pittsburgh is getting mothballed. Now the latest target is Health and Human Services.

Gov. Tom Wolf is recommending that four departments - human services, health, drug and alcohol, and aging - all be combined under one umbrella, the Department of Health and Human Services.

State Sen. Jay Costa, the ranking Democrat in the Senate, says he thinks it's a good idea.

"In many instances, the services that are provided, cross a different agency," he says. So, by having one Health and Human Service agency, we'll be able to bring all those entities together and work in a much more efficient and effective way."

It's already raising fears that the state's efforts to curb the opioid epidemic may suffer. Sen. Costa claims it won't. He says he believes the merger could offer better services.

"This is a means to maintain as many of those services as possible, cut some of the dollars that we need to pay for those and figure out a way to make it more efficient and economical," Sen. Costa said.

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But reaching agreement in Harrisburg hasn't been easy; especially with a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor going head-to-head, and when there's billions of dollars of red ink.

It is highly unlike you'll see a tax hike. Gov. Wolf tried that in his first year. Republicans wouldn't budge. Although, we have seen a cigarette tax and steep increases in state fees, like for auto registration.

The only thing left is cuts.

The budget showdown comes in June.

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