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March 31, 2011

Senate Matters: Return power to the public

On March 8, Gov. Corbett proposed his budget for the coming fiscal year. His plan cuts across a broad array of institutions, programs and services, including substantial cuts in state funding to higher education. In particular, the University of Pittsburgh will lose approximately half of its funding from the state. These cuts present a significant challenge for our University, our fellow state-related institutions and public education in general. They also are likely to increase the already tremendous financial burdens faced by students and their families. Across campus, members of the Pitt community are organizing to block these funding reductions. We applaud these efforts on behalf of our educational institutions.

However, such efforts present a dilemma. If they are successful and the proposed cuts to the University of Pittsburgh and other universities are rescinded or reduced, it is likely that those cuts will be transferred to other vital programs and services. Like Pennsylvania, most states, as well as the federal government, face substantial budget deficits. Legislators in state capitols like Madison and Columbus now are eyeing public employees and public education as among the potential targets for spending reductions; in Washington, D.C., supplemental food programs for infants and children and home heating fuel subsidies for low-income families are being considered for reductions. Reductions at both the state and federal levels are focusing on those struggling most in the current economic environment rather than those who have been the most successful. With state and federal budgets still being negotiated and spending cuts favored over other approaches to bridging budget gaps, it is likely that we have not seen the end of such cuts.

Pitt has a tremendous legacy of contributing to the region, state and nation. From the polio vaccine to community cleanup projects in South Oakland, the more than 13,000 employees, 35,000 students and 250,000 alumni of the University consistently have remained committed to service. We see this commitment every day in the work of students, alumni, faculty and staff in the School of Social Work. The value of Pitt to the community far exceeds its state appropriation. Restoration of the state’s existing level of funding is essential to continuing this legacy, and we must work toward that end.

We cannot, however, limit our focus to restoring Pitt’s appropriation. In conversations with students, alumni, community members, faculty and others, we are hearing that many folks are fed up with policies that favor the wealthy and corporate interests at the expense of most other Americans. Viewed in this light, the governor’s budget proposal is not merely a response to the budget deficit, but a continued attack on children, students, the poor, workers and others. The current frustration and energy building in response to Gov. Corbett’s proposal present an opportunity to build a broader movement that seeks to return power to the public, restore democracy and limit the influence that wealth has in the policy-making process. We encourage members of the University community to become engaged in these efforts and to take action.

The authors are faculty members in the School of Social Work. Keith Caldwell is a lecturer and director of Career Services and Alumni Affairs; Sara Goodkind and Jeffrey Shook are assistant professors; Helen Petracchi and Danny Rosen are associate professors.

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