Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 8, 2001

University is well received at House appropriation hearing

HARRISBURG — Pitt's Feb. 28 hearing before the state House of Representatives appropriations committee sounded like it was scripted by University lobbyists.

Legislators praised Pitt's accomplishments in research, teaching and community service, and its contributions to regional economic growth. They lobbed softball questions enabling Chancellor Mark Nordenberg to elaborate on Pitt requests for special line items for University laboratories ($3 million), biotechnology research ($4 million) and information technology ($3.5 million).

Leo Joseph Trich Jr., D-Washington Co., even made a point of applauding the Pitt administration's 1999 decision to demolish Pitt Stadium and play home football games in the Steelers' new stadium. "I believe it was a wise decision, fiscally and otherwise," Trich said.

"We think it was a wise decision," Nordenberg agreed, smiling, "but it certainly wasn't always popular."

Pitt is seeking $188 million in state funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2001. That's nearly $15 million more than was proposed by Gov. Tom Ridge.

Ridge's recommendation of $173.3 million for Pitt would increase the University's base appropriation by 3 percent. But it would represent a $4.1 million cut in Pitt's total state appropriation, which this year includes $9 million in special line item funding for academic program initiatives, student life initiatives, and upgrades in labs and information technology. The governor did not recommend funding those or any other special line items for Pitt next year — although legislators and governor's office staff could agree to add such funding by the time a budget is passed.

"So, a proposed budget that indicates a 3 percent increase in your base line in reality is a $4 million reduction in revenue for next year?" asked House appropriations committee chairperson John E. Barley, R-Lancaster Co.

Nordenberg confirmed this was true.

"I'm certain that was an oversight" by the governor, Barley commented, wryly.

"I'd like to think that was the case, Mr. Chairman," Norden-berg said.

"A miscalculation," Barley continued, pouring on the sarcasm against Ridge. "I'm certain that it was not intentional. And you have my commitment, as chairman of this committee, to work with you in whatever way we can to see that that oversight can be remedied."

In its request for $188 million next year, Pitt planned for a tuition hike of no more than 5 percent for in-state undergraduates next fall and a 5 percent increase in the pool of money for staff and faculty salary increases.

If Pitt doesn't get the full $188 million it's asking for — if, in fact, the University only receives the $173.3 million recommended by Ridge — how will that affect tuition? asked Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia Co.

Nordenberg replied that Pitt's two principal revenue streams (excluding earmarked grants and gifts) are tuition and the University's state appropriation. "To the extent that the appropriation is lower, then inevitably a larger share of the expenses that are required to provide the program quality that our students seek does come through their tuition," the chancellor said.

Evans, minority chairperson of the House appropriations committee, did not press for a more specific answer.

Last fall's 5 percent tuition hike was the largest for Pitt in-state students since 1992. Current annual tuition for full-time Pennsylvania residents is $6,422.

The University is lobbying for a substantial share of Pennsylvania's tobacco settlement money (estimated at $400 million annually over the next 25 years) to fund Pitt cancer research. "We believe these investments should be made where there have been provable successes," said Nordenberg, citing Jonas Salk's development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s and Pitt's growing success in attracting funds from the National Institutes of Health.

In justifying Pitt's request for $4 million in state funds for biotechnology research, Norden-berg recounted the story of Pitt alumnus Herbert W. Boyer, who helped to develop gene-splicing techniques that revolutionized the biotechnology industry. Boyer founded Genentech, Inc., the first U.S. biotech company, which employs 5,000 people in northern California. "We'd like to make certain that the next Genentech stays in Pittsburgh," said Nordenberg, pointing out that biotech companies — unlike information technology firms — tend to remain in regions where they initially take root.

"You can't start a biotechnology firm in a garage," the chancellor said. "You can't put a [biotech] idea in your pocket and relocate."

Pitt administrators and state lawmakers agreed that huge debts amassed by Pennsylvania medical students discourage graduates from becoming primary care physicians in underserved parts of the state.

Last June, 80 percent of Pitt medical school graduates had incurred debts (averaging $112,000) upon graduation, said Arthur S. Levine, Pitt senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the medical school. "Interest compounds on those debts, and by the time our physicians have finished training and are ready to go into practice, they're usually facing debts of $250,000," Levine said.

With such massive debts, physicians can't afford not to specialize in higher-paying fields, nor can they afford to become research physicians, he said.

Compounding the problem is Pennsylvania's comparatively low support of medical education, said Levine. Nationally, state money accounts for an average of $45,000 annually per student at state-funded medical schools, he said. Pennsylvania provides an average of $11,000 per student at the state's medical schools.

Levine said the federal government has, in the past, funded loan forgiveness programs, which waive debts of medical graduates who agree to serve as family practitioners, pediatricians and obstetricians in rural and other underserved areas of the country. "At the moment, [those federal programs] are tiny. There's just not enough federal money to do what we need to do," Levine said.

A state-funded loan forgiveness program could encourage more Pitt medical and dental students to practice in underserved areas of Pennsylvania, the senior vice chancellor said.

Matthew E. Baker, R-Brad-ford and Tioga, promised to pursue the idea with a Pennsylvania health care task force to which he was recently appointed.

"For a number of years, there's been a tremendous need for more primary care physicians in critical-need areas like my district. I would like us to look at a state-funded loan forgiveness program as a potential solution," Baker told the University Times.

Pitt's scheduled March 5 hearing before the state Senate's appropriations committee was canceled because of heavy snow. The hearing had not been rescheduled as the University Times went to press.

— Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply