Facing veto threat, Pa. House approves bill blocking Wolf from closing centers for the intellectually disabled

The Polk Center, in Venango County in northwest Pennsylvania, is currently home to nearly 200 people with disabilities, and is set to close by 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The Pennsylvania House has approved a measure blocking Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — and his eventual successor — from shuttering two state centers for the intellectually disabled until at least 2025.

The chamber’s 139-55 vote on Wednesday afternoon split both Republicans and Democrats, but reached the two-thirds majorities needed to overcome Wolf’s veto promise. 

The bill also passed the Senate by a veto-proof 40-9 tally, but Capitol observers warned overriding the Governor would not be simple.

Last summer, the Wolf administration announced it was shutting down Polk Center in Venango County and White Haven in Luzerne County by 2022.

Combined, the centers are home to 306 people with disabilities., And they employ 1,173 mostly union workers. If the centers are closed, the residents would be transferred  to one of two other state centers, or they would be moved to a privately-run group home funded by taxpayer dollars.

The House’s vote is “a significant victory for people with intellectual disabilities, the families that love them and the dedicated employees who provide loving care to them at our state centers,” Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, said in a statement. 

The proposal would also establish a task force to study the impact of the closure of state centers.

Yudichak sponsored the legislation. The White Haven center is in his northeastern Pennsylvania district. 

The bill will require one last Senate vote before it heads to Wolf’s desk.

The number of disabled people who live at state-run centers has dwindled. That doesn’t mean closing them isn’t controversial

Fifty years ago, a string of state centers housed 13,000 people with disabilities, but the number of residents has shrank by 94 percent since. The approximately 700 residents left in all four centers have an average age of 64, and often have overlapping mental and physical conditions.

“These folks, God didn’t treat them. [God] gave them problems. It’s our job in our humanness to care for them as best we can,” Rep. Lee James, R-Venango, told the Capital-Star. The Polk center is in his district.

“Their families do everything they can, but their parents age out and pass away. Not every family member is interested in helping and those who are may not have the resources,” James added. “So I think it says a lot about our society that we keep places like Polk, and White Haven, and Ebensburg and Selinsgrove open to the extent we can.”

Disability rights advocates have painted a different picture. They describe Polk and White Haven as vestiges of a paternalistic past that didn’t take into account that people with disabilities are able to live full lives..

John Knorr, a former Selinsgrove center resident, said at a Capitol rally earlier this month that his brother took him out of the center because of mistreatment from the staff.

He now has three jobs, a pet cat, and a girlfriend living independently in Altoona.

“Close it down,” Knorr said of the centers.

The facilities are also costly to keep open, even as populations dwindle. The state spends $128 million to keep Polk and White Haven open. New admissions can only come from a court order under current law, so as elderly residents pass away, they aren’t being replaced.

“At what number [of residents] do we allow … before we say, okay it doesn’t make sense to keep these ancient facilities open, with these massive staffs, for these few people, to stay open,” Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, said during the House floor debate. He voted against the bill.

But despite the costs, lawmakers near all four state centers, with the backing of the public sector unions representing their employees, have pushed for the legislation. 

Just getting the vote at times appeared improbable. All four of the top House Republican leaders backed expressed concern with the legislation, and three of the four backed a bill last session to immediately close every state center.

But rank-and-filed pressure from Republicans pushed their leaders to take the vote, and then put up the two-thirds majority needed to potentially block Wolf’s veto pen.

Even with the lopsided totals, Wolf has held his ground.

“Further investment and transition to community-based care should be the priority for [the] state government,” Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email. “Transitioning from institutionalization will also create more available funding for community-based care.”

Capitol observers have also cautioned that while Democrats may have no issue voting for the bill, overriding the veto of their own governor is a different question.

The Associated Press reported that Wolf has yet to have a veto override since taking office in 2015.

And some lawmakers, even while voting for the proposal, saw Wolf’s point. Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, said during the floor debate Wednesday that the upcoming budget should prioritize disability rights given the intense debate over the state centers.

“If we care about this issue, if we care about this population, if we agree this a core issue of government … I think my fellow members should join me in seeking additional funding,” Murt said.

Currently, there is a 13,000-deep waitlist for community health care for people with disabilities. Clearing the wait list is estimated to cost more than $900 million in state dollars.

A thousand individuals or so have been taken off each year under Wolf, but increases in human services spending are at the center of many state budget impasses.

Looking ahead to the next budget, Venango’s James told the Capital-Star that the state has “a finite amount of resources” and pointed out that 40 percent of the state’s spending goes to human services already. 

“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” James said. But to the extent that the state could find dollars to reduce the waiting listing, “I can support that.”