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December 10, 2009

Pitt’s appropriation: The waiting game

House Republicans on Wednesday attempted to release funding for state-related universities, including Pitt, whose appropriations bills have been held up in the House while legislators work out an agreement on new table games legislation.

Behind-the-scenes discussions have been underway for months to iron out details on how much tax to levy on table games revenue, how many resort gaming licenses there should be and how many slot machines and game tables to allow. Debate reached the House floor on Tuesday but ended without a vote.

The FY10 state budget relies on some $200 million in projected revenues from the legalization of casino table games. While Republican leaders assert that the state has enough money to fund appropriations for the state-related universities, Democrats, who control the House, say that table games revenue is needed before the budget is balanced and the non-preferred appropriations can be approved. Resolution of the gaming issue would clear the way for legislators to approve state appropriations for the fellow state-related schools and other non-preferred institutions.

“We hope to get a vote today, but it could go longer,” Bob Caton, spokesperson for House Speaker Keith McCall (D-Carbon), told the University Times at midday Dec. 9. “We’re dedicated to getting this done,” not only for the jobs that would be created by the table games legislation, but also “because it’s time to get the funding to the schools,” Caton said. Once the table games legislation is passed, votes on the non-preferred appropriations would follow immediately, Caton said.

However, House Republicans on Wednesday tried a different approach. Appropriations bills for Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities were on Wednesday’s House calendar. “Any member of the chamber can call them up by special order,” said Stephen Miskin, spokesperson for House minority leader Sam Smith (R-Jefferson). After Katharine Watson (R-Bucks) did so, the speaker broke for caucus discussions.

As the University Times went to press Wednesday afternoon, the House had extended its recess several times and had not returned.

The state budget requires a simple majority in order to pass, but non-preferred appropriations — for institutions not completely under the state’s control — need a two-thirds majority and are set via separate appropriations bills for the individual institutions. Democrats have a 104-99 majority in the 203-member house.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell told reporters Wednesday afternoon he was disappointed by the delay in reaching a table games agreement and threatened that state workers could be laid off if additional revenues aren’t forthcoming.

The state has budgeted nearly $168 million for Pitt: $160.49 million in state money and $7.5 million in federal stimulus funding, but Pitt’s appropriation is nearing a record-breaking delay.

The longest the University has gone without a state appropriation came in 2003, when Rendell signed Pitt’s appropriation bill on Dec. 23 — 176 days after the July 1, 2003 start of the FY04 fiscal year.

This year, Rendell signed a state budget on Oct. 9 — 101 days late.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 8

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