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February 21, 2002

Pitt mum on what poor state budget outlook means here

Unlike their counterparts in the State System of Higher Education, Pitt administrators aren’t speculating publicly about how much they would hike tuition next fall if Pennsylvania legislators approve Gov. Mark Schweiker’s recommended budget.

But the budget numbers aren’t pretty.

Schweiker proposes cutting state subsidies of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities (Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln) by 5 percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Tuition income and the state appropriation are Pitt’s two main sources of unrestricted funds, i.e., money that’s not earmarked for specific research or building projects.

To compensate for a 5 percent decrease in state funding, Pitt would need to raise tuition by 3.4 percent on top of any inflation-based tuition increase — assuming Pitt chose to make up for the Schweiker-proposed cut solely by raising tuition, said Vice Chancellor for Budget and Controller Arthur G. Ramicone.

That’s not taking into account the fact that Pennsylvania already has imposed a 3 percent freeze on current appropriations to state-related universities. For Pitt, the freeze amounts to nearly $5.4 million, out of an approved $178.5 million appropriation. If state revenues continue to fall short of projections, which seems likely, lawmakers will withhold the $5.4 million from Pitt’s final FY 2002 payment from the state, in June.

In the FY 2003 funding request that Pitt submitted to Harrisburg, the University proposed limiting next fall’s tuition increase to 4 percent, but only if Pitt gets the full amount it is requesting for next year: $186 million, or 4.3 percent more than Pitt’s current approved appropriation.

Faced with a potential budget squeeze similar to Pitt’s, leaders of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities said Schweiker’s plan would force them to eliminate programs and raise tuition by nearly 13 percent next fall.

Despite being “inundated” with inquiries from the news media, Pitt (which hiked its tuition by 7.5 percent last fall) won’t discuss possible tuition increases or program cuts yet, Pitt’s chief Harrisburg lobbyist told the University Senate budget policies committee (BPC) recently.

G. Reynolds Clark, executive director of Pitt’s community and governmental relations office, said: “It’s still early in the budget process. The [budget] lines that Gov. Schweiker has proposed are not cast in concrete yet. We’re taking a cautious and cooperative approach.”

But some faculty members on BPC recommended a noisy approach instead: Detailing publicly how state funding cuts would hurt Pitt students and academic programs.

English professor Stephen Carr said: “I understand the need to be politic and to work with the legislature. But to say that we will just absorb [funding cuts] seems to me to be very counterproductive. There should be a visible cost or consequence to these things.”

Referring to this year’s 3 percent freeze, Carr continued: “Either we are all deluded and we have 3 percent fat in our budget, or there will be real consequences” from cutting Pitt’s budget by that percentage. “I’m not in a position to know what the real consequences are, but I’m sure that if you ask people they could come up with Ronald Reagan-esque stories of firing people or cutting desirable programs or courses that would have to be canceled.”

According to Vice Chancellor Ramicone, most Pitt units would absorb a 3 percent cut this year through one-time measures such as deferring computer purchases and reducing spending on travel (which already was down at Pitt by 20 percent last fall, a reduction that Ramicone attributed to skittishness following Sept. 11’s terrorist attacks).

As for next year’s cuts, Ramicone warned: “We have to be careful what we threaten….If we threaten layoffs, we have to be prepared to follow through if the state reduces our budget.”

Economics professor James Cassing, president of the University Senate, recommended three strategies: Collaborating with the other state-related universities, so all four schools threaten to raise tuition by the same percentage; helping students to organize as a voting bloc, so lawmakers will know they risk losing votes if they reduce funding to universities, and warning that state funding cuts may translate into layoffs. “And it’s not going to cause faculty layoffs,” Cassing added. “It’s going to cause layoffs at the lowest levels” among staff.

As for presenting a united front to state lawmakers, officials from Pitt and the other state-related universities will testify together, for the first time, during a hearing Feb. 26 before the state Senate’s appropriations committee. Each university chancellor or president will give a presentation summarizing some aspect of the funding needs of all four schools.

Following public hearings and closed-door wrangling, state legislators are expected to submit a budget for the governor’s approval by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Clark said he has “all the confidence in the world” that a state budget will be approved by that date, but not much sooner. “There are so many issues that have the attention of the legislature,” Clark said.

— Bruce Steele

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