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Pittsburghers of faith protest cuts in Harrisburg

By Ann Rodgers and Michael Macagnone on May 23, 2012
© Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburghers representing many religious groups crowded the steps in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg Tuesday, protesting proposed cuts to education and mass transit.

Dianne Watson, an Episcopalian from Squirrel Hill, was among about 150 people who took Port Authority of Allegheny County buses to the state capital. She is unable to drive due to a medical condition.

If the 64 bus route is eliminated in September, "I won't be able to get to work or to church or to medical appointments," she said. "This is absolutely a moral and religious issue. It's important to allow those who are poor to have transportation so they can live their lives."

The rally was organized by the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, whose member congregations range from Catholic to Muslim to Unitarian.

Gov. Tom Corbett's budget "ignores what people and communities need," said Carol Ballance of Pine, chairwoman of the network's transit task force. "The effect these education cuts would have on our children's future is devastating. As for transit, this budget would practically bring it to a halt."

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, spoke at the 40-minute rally. Mr. Frankel said proposed cuts would "degrade the quality of education" in the state.

The protesters delivered 1,500 signed postcards to Mr. Corbett's office. They backed his commission's recommendations to provide steady transit funding through measures such as restructuring the state sales tax.

The efforts of the Pittsburgh interfaith group are typical of what religious groups are doing at federal and state levels.

After some supporters of the federal House budget claimed that churches should make up for $169 million per year in cuts to the program formerly known as food stamps, the Christian anti-hunger organization Bread for the World said that would require $50,000 a year from every congregation. And that wouldn't address proposed cuts to Medicaid and other assistance for the poor, said David Beckmann, president of the advocacy group.

That's impossible for most churches, he said. Bread for the World works with faith groups ranging from the National Association of Evangelicals to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the United Church of Christ.

"Among the religious leadership of the country there has been exceptionally broad agreement that we can reduce deficit spending without balancing the budget on the backs of the poor," he said.

"There is nothing in the Bible that says you can't tax people who have enough. There is a lot in the Bible that says you shouldn't be tough on poor people."

Legislators respond to grass-roots lobbying efforts, he said. Due in part to messages from hundreds of thousands of Bread for the World supporters, "so far at the federal level no substantial cuts in programs for poor people have been finalized," he said.

In Harrisburg, both the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches are lobbying to save a similar list of programs for the poor. These include low-interest home loans for people facing foreclosure due to illness or job loss, a general assistance program that provides small cash grants to elderly disabled people without children and other highly vulnerable people, and a block grant for human services including mental health, homelessness, addiction treatment and child welfare.

"This seems to have mobilized people more than in the past, said the Rev. Sandra Strauss, director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. "The cuts are getting deep enough that people are starting to see what it does in their own community, and churches are seeing an uptick in the number of people who go to their food pantry or soup kitchen or just show up asking for help."

Ms. Ballance was thrilled with the attention their protest drew in the capitol. She was especially happy over a meeting with the staff of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County. Contrary to warnings from other activists, they were allowed into the governor's outer office to deliver their postcards.

"We felt like it was a small victory that he didn't shut us down," she said.

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