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Back in March, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a budget with a new and different vision for Pennsylvania: adequately and equitably funded schools, reduced property taxes and a commonsense severance tax. The alternative, proposed by the Republican-led Legislature: underfunded services and structural deficits. This week marks the sixth in which Pennsylvanians are left to suffer inadequate education funding because the Legislature would rather embrace the status quo than make oil and gas companies pay their fair share.

As this debate continues, an under-reported, yet key, difference between the plans involves the full and holistic funding for Pennsylvania's services and service providers that help hundreds of thousands. Two small pieces of the governor's budget proposal that illustrate this difference are the governor's proposed increases in the budget for Labor & Industry's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and workforce development Industry Partnerships (IPs) initiative, a historically successful program.

The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) exists to help people with disabilities prepare for, obtain and maintain employment and independence. Further, dedicated staff members work with employers on comprehensive plans to employ folks with disabilities. After meeting hundreds of employers and employees throughout the state that work with and through OVR, I can personally attest that people with disabilities are frequently among employers' best employees.

These are life-changing programs. Last month, I spoke at the graduation of the OVR Summer Academy for blind and visually impaired students, which prepares them for independent life, post-secondary education and, ultimately, employment. Many of the students entered the program entirely dependent on their parents and peers. They left with abilities they didn't know they had through the use of new technologies and techniques. OVR's programs are crucial in getting Pennsylvanians with all types of disabilities to realize their full potential and become independent and productive members of society.

OVR currently serves more than 56,000 people with disabilities in the commonwealth. The governor's proposed $5.4 million increase to OVR will allow the state to maximize federal funds with a draw-down of an additional $18.5 million to support programs that will help us serve more people and change more lives. The proposed increase in state funding will allow us to maximize all available federal money and greatly expand our employment and independent living programs to more Pennsylvanians who would benefit significantly.

The governor's budget will also dedicate $10 million for Industry Partnerships, an established Department of Labor & Industry workforce program that enables clusters of businesses in complementary industries to convene and identify common needs for workforce skill sets and to develop training programs that meet those needs.

As I travel the state and talk with large and small businesses about the problems they're facing, I have found that a major issue is their ability to access talent to replace their aging workforce. IPs provide an avenue for industries and the state to team up and provide training to prospective employees in industries where skills gap exists.

Thousands of Pennsylvanians are currently unable to find jobs and yet employers tell us they need skilled workers. Increasing funding for IPs is an investment for Pennsylvania businesses and will be invaluable to those looking for work. Many people have college degrees and are remarkably hard-working. The skilled and specialized training provided by IPs can be their path to great-paying, family-sustaining jobs.

This is what the budget debate is really about. Both of these investments have the potential to change lives with expanded services for real people. For you, your neighbor, your child, your co-worker. And these are only a couple of examples that illustrate the need for a state budget that holistically and fully funds services and service providers.

Gov. Wolf and the Department of Labor & Industry want to pass a budget that creates jobs, a world-class education system, and economic growth. We want our citizens to thrive. But, we can't keep passing the same budget that we have passed for the past four years and expect different results. It is time to change the status quo. I encourage the General Assembly to come back to the table and pass a budget that invests in the priorities that Pennsylvanians want. Let's pass a true balanced budget that funds our schools, reduces property taxes, imposes a commonsense severance tax, holistically funds services that make Pennsylvania better than is it today, and makes our people a priority.

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