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March 14, 1996

University takes its case to state House appropriations committee

HARRISBURG — During Pitt's March 5 hearing before the state House of Representatives appropriations committee, most of the committee members' questions and comments sounded as if they had been scripted by Pitt officials themselves.

Perhaps it was a case of Democratic lawmakers seeking to portray a Republican governor as a short-sighted skinflint — six of the seven representatives who spoke up were Democrats — but most of the speakers praised the University's contributions in education, economic development and the health sciences.

And they criticized Gov. Tom Ridge for failing to recognize those contributions.

Under Ridge's proposed budget, Pitt would receive virtually no increase during the 1996-97 fiscal year in its current state appropriation of $147,265,000.

The representatives urged Pitt officials to enlist the help of trustees, students, alumni and employees in pressing for more state aid for higher education. But the lawmakers stopped short of actually promising more money.

Early in the 50-minute hearing, two representatives good-naturedly accused Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg of being too diplomatic in referring to Ridge's proposed appropriation for Pitt as "flat" funding.

In fact, Ridge's proposal would amount to a funding cut for Pitt because it would not make up for increases in University expenses next year, said the lawmakers — committee minority chairperson Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and Richard D. Olasz, D-Allegheny.

Smiling, Nordenberg agreed. "Practically speaking, we are talking about a cut [under Ridge's proposal] because we're talking about applying the same amount of money to expenses that will inevitably increase," he said.

Nordenberg cited rising costs for utilities, lab equipment and library materials. Foreign journal subscriptions, he noted, increase in price by as much as 30 percent annually but are essential for maintaining a major research university library. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, lobbed a number of softball questions at Nordenberg, especially during the following exchange: DeLuca: "As I understand this situation, we try to say that we want to bring economic development into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Yet I see our universities as an economic development generator, in creating jobs. Am I right?" Nordenberg: "Absolutely." DeLuca: "Do you provide [employee fringe] benefits?" Nordenberg: "We sure do." DeLuca: "Are the majority of your jobs minimum wage?" Nordenberg: "No, clearly not." DeLuca: "So they're pretty substantial jobs. They provide benefits, they keep the economy going because of the spin-off jobs that they create…" Nordenberg: "Yes, sir." If Pennsylvania treated private businesses that way, the companies would threaten to relocate elsewhere, DeLuca said. But universities can't pick up and move, so state lawmakers get away with underfunding them, he continued.

"I think that somewhere along the line, we need to start realizing that our universities play a very big part in generating jobs throughout this whole region and especially in smaller manufacturing and entrepre-neurships," DeLuca said.

Nordenberg noted that the University is Pittsburgh's largest employer, that Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center account for one of every 17 jobs in Allegheny County, and that Pitt annually brings in close to one-quarter of a billion dollars in sponsored research funds.

In the FY 1996-97 budget request that Pitt submitted last fall, the University asked for $157,230,000, a 6.8 increase over the current appropriation. Based on that level of state funding, Pitt had planned to raise tuition next fall by 3.5 percent.

If the University administration chose to use tuition income as its sole means of bridging the gap between its own proposal and Gov. Ridge's, Pitt would have to hike tuition by 8.5 percent — which the administration does not plan to do, Nordenberg emphasized.

But he said that if Ridge's budget is approved, Pitt might be forced to raise tuition "somewhat higher" than 3.5 percent and would have to continue making cuts in programs and services.

— Bruce Steele

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