I arrived at the McFarland Student Union building with more than hour to spare before Lt. Governor James Crawley would introduce the Corbett administration’s most recent round of crippling budget cuts to the Kutztown community. The building’s perimeter had been well secured by a small force of local deputies, whose presence provided an appropriate backdrop for an evening in which oppressive government proposals would be the topic of discussion. It was revealed almost immediately that university officials were in no mood for rabble-rousers—members of the Occupy Kutztown movement had been stripped of their anti-fracking signs before I could find my way to the registration table, where stone-faced men with wide ties watched the growing crowd of young dissidents gathering in the second floor lobby.
Despite warnings of limited seating and a request for a prompt RSVP, the registration sheet provided by the Northeast Berks Chamber of Commerce contained the names of less than two-dozen attendees (non-administrative) for the March 1 meeting. “I am disappointed more students didn’t show up to address their concerns in a mature manner,” said Kutztown student Nick Imbesi in response to the shameful turnout. The few individuals who did decide to attend did not have to wait until the Republican lawmakers took the stage to witness the evenings first act—Kutztown student and Occupy Kutztown organizer, Sean Kitchen, perhaps still bitter as a result of the university’s aversion to the practice of free speech, proceeded to interrogate a noticeably uncomfortable President Javier Cevallos on the university’s ethics, while a cohort captured the moment on film. Kitchen’s actions would prove to set the tone for the political spectacle that would follow.
“Lets have an honest conversation about education,” Lt. Gov. Cawley said, to an audience still focused on Kitchen, who continued his political theatrics by standing with his back to the podium and his fingers waving in time with Cawley’s cadence. Seemingly unhindered by an action that one student remembered as “quite immature,” Cawley continued his oration, although continuously refusing to present information that contained contextual significance or political realities. Cawley was quick to place much of the state’s budget woes on the “unfunded mandates that shackle many fine educators,” and an education budget “that in fifteen years has more than doubled.” The attempt to redirect taxpayer frustration failed to highlight the blow dealt to the state’s pension fund when it reported an
investment income loss of nearly 30% in 2008, in addition to the state’s willingness to allow employer pension contributions to stagnate over the same aforementioned fifteen-year span. Furthermore, Cawley’s admitted “commitment to charter and home schools” may signify the administration’s alignment with the religious Right, which has for years lobbied state and federal lawmakers to cut public education spending in favor of educational training based on religious principles.
While Cawley spent much of his presentation discussing the proposed budget’s impact on public education, observers noted his careful, and deliberate oversight in addressing the ramifications Corbett’s proposal will have on the state’s higher education system. “The administration has a personal vendetta against higher education and they are destroying the higher education system of this state, said Imbesi. “I found it odd that higher education was not brought up in the speech—it was like a giant elephant in the room.”
After explaining to the attendees that the road to fiscal recovery will require the administration to “make tough choices” to elevate the state’s debt, Cawley turned the podium over to Secretary of Revenue Dan Meuser, who presented a long-winded, and often misleading power point presentation in an effort to underscore the role public education will play in attracting out-of-state investors and expanding on the “tough choices” that the administration has made. “The big part of attracting jobs to this state is how strong our education plans and our schools are,” said Meuser. “I hate to sound like a financial guy, but investment brings all the things we want for your families, your children, and your schools.”
Meuser, whose plan to address environmental damage resulting from natural gas drilling amounted to nothing more than, “energy reform, it’s essential,” expressed the administration’s commitment to “engage in education reform,” but failed to explain his, or the administration’s reformations in any detail.
Corbett’s delegation proved ill-equipped to provide a solution for aiding in the recovery of the state’s Department of Education, however, each speaker was capable of speaking at great lengths in regard to the “tough choices that will challenge all to do more with less.” The additional cut to the state’s Department of Public Welfare, a department the administration said was riddled with “waste and fraud, was touted as an administrative success. In addition to a budget reduction of nearly $475 million in 2011, Meuser anticipates the administration will be capable of identifying an additional savings of nearly $600 million in the proposed budget. Although most state departments felt the burden of fiscal restraint almost immediately after Corbett assumed the role of Pennsylvania’s governor, Republicans revealed a plan last May aimed at balancing the state’s budget “largely by squeezing money out of public welfare programs.”
Despite receiving a budgetary increase of 11% in 2011, the state’s Department of Corrections is projected to “keep pace with the other departments this year,” Meuser said. This decision marks the first time in more than a decade the department will not enjoy an increase in its operational budget, “but we can’t focus on what one line item is getting over another line item.”
Following the evening’s discussion, which failed to offer a viable solution for curbing the state’s deficit (with the exception of bleeding the DPW), Cawley and Meuser agreed to participate in a question and answer session with members of the Kutztown community. When Berks Gas Truth member Karen Feridun asked the speakers if the “administration supported drilling on or near college campuses to lower overhead costs,” her question was met with an answer that would bring Sean Kitchen back into the spotlight, ensuring the evening would end as it began—with Kitchen playing the agitator.
“It is a careful balance—an ongoing effort to maximize the economic development and job creation potential of the industry, while minimizing the risk,” said Cawley, who agreed to extend the presentation to allow Kitchen to express his concerns.
“What you are saying, said Kitchen, is you endorse poisoning college students?”
“We acknowledge that there are risks,” said Cawley. “But to suggest that the harvesting of natural gas in this state is equivalent to poisoning college students, quite candidly, is so absurd it disrespects your argument—it’s not accurate, it’s theater sir, it’s theater.”
Drew Simonovich | Raging Chicken Press intern, reporter, independent writer