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Domestic violence centers near closure as budget talks resume

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- On the 105th day of Pennsylvania's budget stalemate, negotiations resumed for the first time in a week. But Governor Tom Wolf was not involved. Neither were Democrat and Republican Party leadership. Instead, Wednesday's budget meeting inside the state capitol involved party staffers.

Any talks involving the third-longest budget impasse in state history are back at square one.

"We're going back to the drawing board and seeing what we can do moving forward," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny).

Typically, when budget negotiations begin anew, staffers begin the talks to find common ground, Costa says. After that, party leadership gets involved before the governor is included. Governor Wolf spent the day at events in Washington County and Pittsburgh.

"Folks are starting to feel the pain now," Costa said. "We have to acknowledge that and recognize that."

Peg Dierkers, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is wondering why domestic violence agencies weren't acknowledged and recognized months ago. Abuse centers across the commonwealth are drying up of money fast, with some shelters already forced to make cuts, including laying employees off.

"I think the main emotion is desperation," Dierkers says of the attitude in the PCADV office. "Fear, anger, and not knowing where to turn. Not just in this office but people who work in domestic violence centers across the state."

Ten counties throughout Pennsylvania are expected to run out of their share of the $22 million allotted to domestic violence centers in the state's 67 counties, Dierkers says. Another 20, including many in South Central PA, are expected to run out of money by the end of November.

"In almost half the state, there will be no domestic violence services by Thanksgiving," Dierkers says. "It's horrific."
In some shelters across Pennsylvania, employees are working for free to help abuse victims. Relocation services, which provide money to abuse victims to leave their abuser, were among the first areas to be cut from county programs, Dierkers says. In some cases, they are being forced to live with the person who abuses them.

"We have been paid nothing since July 1. Nothing," she said. "How is it possible to sit across from someone who fears for their life and tell them you can’t help them?

Meanwhile, Wednesday's budgetary meeting took negotiations back to "square one", a phrase used by House Democrats after Gov. Wolf's latest budget proposal was soundly defeated by a House of Representatives vote of 127-73 last week. Since then, the governor has maintained progress was made in his desire for a $1 billion increase in taxes, money which he says will go towards education funding and property tax relief. Wolf added nothing, moving forward, would be off the table in negotiations.

"The only thing I think should be off the table is any gambling expansion," Sen. Costa said.

Pennsylvania's gaming industry has been revised twice in the last five years. Costa says Senate Democrats have no interest in expanding its guidelines once again.

"We're very concerned at the mindset that expanding gaming in a very significant way to solve the budget crisis," he said. "To me that’s inappropriate. That’s wrong. A number of members in my caucus feel the same thing."