Democrats Block Funding To State-Related Colleges

Tracie Mauriello and Laura Olson
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pitt, other major state schools held hostage in impasse over budget cuts

The University of Pittsburgh was among the casualties of budget wrangling Monday night as Democratic lawmakers flexed what little muscle they have in a Capitol controlled by Republicans.

Rebelling against GOP budget cuts, House and Senate Democrats blocked funding to Pitt, Penn State University, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school.

Democrats said they were upset that the measures were up for a vote before they had seen the general spending bill, and that they were unable to seek more funding for the schools. Republicans countered that it was obstructionist to deny funding to those universities, which traditionally receive some state support.

The votes against money for four of the state’s most high-profile colleges overshadowed the much-anticipated release of details on the $27.15 billion state spending plan. That proposal, which reduces spending by 3 percent from the current year, passed a Senate panel along party lines and is expected to be voted in that chamber today.

Lawmakers have three days to send that spending bill and a handful of related measures to the governor’s desk. The university funding bills could be among those if lawmakers work out their differences, but, following the vote, both sides pointed to each other as the problem.

“With this obstructionism, we very well may not see the state universities funded,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

What’s more likely is that the schools would have to wait for funding, possibly until lawmakers return from summer break.

That scenario occurred at least twice before. In 1977, universities had to pay $1.4 million in interest on loans they took to make ends meet until December, when the Legislature eventually approved a $300 million appropriation. And when 2009 budget negotiations dragged on, schools threatened to issue supplemental tuition bills.

Officials from at least three of the schools wrote lawmakers Monday afternoon, saying they can’t wait.

“It is vital to the University of Pittsburgh that it receives a timely appropriation, albeit a significant reduction from our current funding level. If the University of Pittsburgh’s [funding] is not approved before the summer break it will create significant disruption to our efforts to establish a university budget and set tuition for the coming year,” wrote Paul A. Supowitz and Charles McLaughlin, Pitt government relations officials.

The four schools — as well as Lincoln University, which won funding approval in the House but not the Senate — are the only pieces of the state budget package that require a two-thirds vote to get state funding. With all Republicans voting for the bills, four Senate Democrats and 24 House Democrats would have to cross party lines for passage.

“There isn’t any doubt that this is the one place where Democrats can wield some power. It’s the one place where they do have leverage,” said G. Terry Madonna, political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Under the proposal negotiated by Republican leaders, the four schools would receive a total of $515 million. That’s less than the current $688 million, but $180 million more than Gov. Tom Corbett had originally proposed.

The state provides between 8 percent and 20 percent of the schools’ overall operating budgets.

Pitt would get $136 million in state funding, down from the current $168 million appropriation but $56 million more than the governor initially proposed.

Democrats say 19 percent is too much to cut during a year when the state has collected at least $650 million more in taxes than anticipated.

“I think many of us believe there’s an opportunity for full restoration, but we at least ought to have the opportunity to have a discussion, have a debate, and maybe compromise,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill. “But we haven’t gotten to. Nineteen percent is their compromise, without a discussion with those of us who have constituents who rely on these state universities.”

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the negotiated spending figure is an improvement over the governor’s original proposal.

“We’ve done as well as we can do working in the parameters that we’re working in,” Mr. Scarnati said. “If they want to hold a gun to their head and take a hostage, so let it be, but I believe that the ramifications of a late state budget will be strictly on their shoulders.”

While that higher education funding remains in limbo, the bill outlining the bulk of the state’s spending plan began moving forward Monday evening. In committee, senators updated the legislation to reflect the agreement reached last week between GOP lawmakers and the governor.

Democratic senators on the committee balked at that spending plan, and attempted to add in more funding for schools, economic development, health care, human services, arts and tourism. Their amendments were resoundingly rejected.

“There’s nothing about this budget so far that we like,” said Philadelphia Sen. Vince Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, defended the compromise plan as a budget that “will match up for our revenues with our expenditures.” He noted that the agreement adds back in some funding for basic education and doesn’t raise taxes.

“Now that we’ve sort of got to the bottom of this recession, we can now move forward and hopefully grow in the future,” Mr. Corman said.

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