Corbett Tightens Belt

Altoona Mirror

Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a balanced $27.1 billion state budget to the General Assembly for 2012-13.

It included no tax increases and a spending reduction of about $22 million.

“We are still living through a difficult economic time of our lives. I bring a budget reflecting those times,” Corbett said. “Lean and demanding.”

And like jumping into a cold swimming pool, the second time around a budget with Corbett’s conservative Republican philosophy may have been less shocking for General Assembly members accustomed to former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s tax and spend mentality.

“Everyone is more settled into the approach that Gov. Corbett takes,” Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, said. “I didn’t hear as much talk of ‘We need to get this restored; it’s not fair.’”

Corbett maintained basic education funding, which is good news for school districts, Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, said. The House Democrats and Republicans conducted a budget debate session after the governor’s late-morning address.

“I think education funding will stay as the governor proposed it,” Geist said, although he expressed disappointment in cuts to higher education.

University funding

Proposed cuts to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Temple University are 30 percent each.

When Pennsylvania College of Technology, which is part of Penn State, is factored in, Penn State’s total cut is 28.2 percent.

Proposed cuts to the State System of Higher Education, which includes 14 state universities, is 20 percent.

Lean Penn State funding was indicated to the Board of Trustees when Corbett, who is a voting member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, abstained from a recent vote.

The topic being discussed was renovation projects recommended by the board’s finance and physical plant committee at its Jan. 20 board meeting.

The board ultimately passed about $22 million in construction and renovation projects for several campuses, including upgrades to infrastructure at the University Park and Altoona campuses.

“We are in difficult economic times. I am concerned about taxpayer dollars. I have a very difficult budget,” Corbett said of his abstention during that meeting.

The proposed 30 percent cut of $64 million drops Penn State’s state funding from $214 million to $150 million. Funding for the Pennsylvania College of Technology remains flat at $13.5 million.

“In the months ahead, we’ll have an opportunity to make the Legislature aware of the likely impacts of these cuts for Penn State programs and how they will affect students and their families,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said.

All university staff and faculty have gone two of the last three years without pay raises, Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said.

Last fiscal year, Penn State’s funding from the commonwealth was cut by 19.6 percent, for a $68 million decrease. Tuition was subsequently raised last year.

A tuition increase has, so far, not been announced for the 2012-13 year, but costs for auxiliary services are rising. In January, the Board of Trustees approved the average room and board rate increase of $125 per semester or 2.86 percent universitywide next year. That bumps the most common meal plan and double occupancy residence hall room rate to the mid-$4,000 range per semester at the University Park and Altoona campuses.

Erickson said the university will do everything possible to not let state funding cuts impose “undue hardship on Penn State families. We will do everything we can to continue to cut costs and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of delivering our broad range of instructional programs.”

Public education funding proposals

Public education was cut in 2011-12, primarily because federal stimulus money was depleted. In Blair and Cambria counties, teaching positions, sports coaches and extracurricular activities were cut; school employees took wage freezes; and school taxes in some districts were raised to make up for cuts in state funding.

Corbett’s proposal for 2012-13 is a 0.34 increase over last year to $6 billion.

Corbett also proposed breaking up the rigid structure of education funding line items including Social Security and transportation so that school boards have complete flexibility to spend state funding allocations as they deem fit.

“Local districts know how to spend better than Harrisburg bureaucrats,” Corbett said.

With about 8,000 students, Altoona Area School District is one of Pennsylvania’s largest school districts. In Corbett’s proposal, the district’s state funding remains stable at $40 million.

District spokeswoman Paula Foreman said the district’s business administrators are not sure whether Corbett’s plan to make funds flexible will be beneficial.

“Costs for Social Security and transportation are increasing, and we have seen [Corbett’s] proposed figures, but we don’t know if they will match up with what our calculations are,” she said.

Corbett also proposed increased grants through a Targeted Industry Certificate program for college and trade school students who are training for high-demand occupations tied to the state’s natural gas industry.

“Welding jobs have followed the rise in manufacturing and Marcellus Shale,” said Lanny Ross, Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center executive director.

Those grants may help GACTC students, because all approved programs address high-priority fields, Ross said.

Overall, Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, was pleased with the governor’s budget.

“I was glad to see the governor willing to lump education line items together for districts to use in ways school board members deem necessary,” he said.

“The budget is a $22 million decrease from last year,” Stern said. “[The state is] behind in our revenues, so we knew this had to happen.”

A final budget is to be in place by July 1.

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