Budget versus public safety: tough balance

Gov. Tom Wolf faces a difficult journey regarding his proposal to merge crime-related services into an umbrella agency known as the Department of Criminal Justice.

Such proposals have failed before, under the weight of logical concerns, and there’s no indication that most state lawmakers are excited about the prospect of tackling an issue with such broad implications in the short time window for piecing together a 2017-18 state budget.

Commendably, the governor is trying to save money in an effort to address the commonwealth’s estimated $3 billion deficit, without proposing to raise the state’s income and sales taxes.

But the $10 million savings estimated to be possible from the merger, while a lot of money, is in fact not much of a fiscal savior in the context of his $32.3 billion budget proposal for next fiscal year.

Additionally, estimates are lacking regarding the costs associated with effecting the merger. Beyond that, there are dangers in creating an entity that might be too cumbersome.

Rather than hike taxes, the mood in Harrisburg purportedly is revolving around “reinventing government” by implementing efficiencies and other savings. Those are the bases for another Wolf proposal, to create a consolidated health and welfare department.

Actually, both proposals face uncertain fates in a Legislature that usually is averse to radical change.

Probably the most serious concern related to the proposed merging of crime-related services is whether public safety would be eroded.

Rep. Ron Marisco, R-Dauphin, majority chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, fears that unwanted result.

“We simply cannot jeopardize public safety to save tax dollars,” he said.

During the last legislative session, Marisco held a hearing on the issue, but he never brought up the bill under consideration at that time — Senate Bill 859, which passed the upper chamber by a 37-10 vote — because of what Marisco described as the “concern and very little support” for it.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is among those outside the Legislature who are opposed to the merger.

“Probably the most significant reason is that we believe that there’d be insufficient independence of (the Board of) Probation and Parole,” Richard Long, PDAA’s director, told the online news and information service Capitolwire.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society is among interest groups that support the plan, however.

Under the merger proposal, the new agency would house the current duties of the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and three independent entities — the Board of Parole and Probation, Office of Victim Advocate and Sexual Offenders Assessment Board. The proposal also seeks to transfer some BPP duties to the secretary’s authority.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told Capitolwire that the new department would comprise prisons, halfway houses and the “infrastructure that supervises people in the community,” including corrections facilities’ staffs and parole agents.

Although the current opposition to the proposed merger doesn’t necessarily spell the idea’s demise — some degree of support exists in the Legislature — the question becomes whether intended efficiencies and savings to be realized can be accomplished without the serious downsides some fear.

The proposal’s journey is destined to be difficult, whether it’s fully addressed during budget talks or whether the issue is put off for consideration until later — the most likely scenario.