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March 22, 2012

Corbett visits Pitt, defends higher ed cuts

In a March 16 visit to the Pittsburgh campus, Gov. Tom Corbett answered questions at an event organized by Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and undergraduate Student Government Board.

In a March 16 visit to the Pittsburgh campus, Gov. Tom Corbett answered questions at an event organized by Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and undergraduate Student Government Board.

“I take no pleasure in doing this,” Gov. Tom Corbett said of a proposed state budget that includes cuts for higher education.

In a March 16 visit to the Pittsburgh campus, Corbett made a brief presentation and answered questions in an hour-long event organized by Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and undergraduate Student Government Board.

Corbett’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 would cut Pitt’s education and general appropriation by 30 percent and its academic medical line item support by 10 percent, for a combined reduction of nearly $42 million. (See Feb. 9 University Times.)

“Do I want to do this? No, I don’t want to. But I don’t have the money. That’s what’s driving this,” Corbett told the mostly student audience of more than 300 people in the William Pitt Union.

He cited the economic downturn and rising pension-funding obligations as contributors to the state’s budget woes. Corbett said the state had a deficit of $4.2 billion on a budget just shy of $29 billion when he took office in 2011. “We had to get our spending under control,” he said.

In response to a question on how he would feel if Pitt and Penn State became private universities, Corbett said, “I certainly would be disappointed if they had to do it. But I would certainly understand if they had to do it,” he said.

Using a pie chart to show where state tax dollars go, the governor said spending for education — kindergarten through higher ed — makes up 40 percent of the state’s budget. Public welfare takes up another 38.9 percent. “If the amount of money you put into a program equals your No. 1 priority: Pennsylvania looks at education as its No. 1 priority,” he said.

“When that pizza pie goes from an 8-inch pie to a 6-inch pie, you still have those percentages, but it’s not as much money,” the governor said, noting that the proposed budget is based on an estimated $27.145 billion in income.

“I have to look at the entire state as a whole. As a result, I’m looking at a $4.2 billion deficit. If we were to make that deficit up last year, every family of four would have had to pay personal income tax of $920 in additional tax,” he said.

“I was elected to govern, to make tough decisions, to come here in front of you and answer your questions and I understand your anger at this,” the governor said. “Frankly I’ve found it very difficult getting our message out that we already spend 40 percent on education, almost 40 percent on welfare. And if we don’t grow this economy … with the pension obligations that we have coming, it’s going to get worse. Unfortunately in the past, general assemblies and administrations past have kicked the can down the road to you, to me,” the governor said.

Looking toward his grandchildren’s generation, Corbett said, “What kind of state are they going to have if we continue the fiscal trail we’re on, if we don’t control our spending and don’t allow you to keep more of your money?”

In the upcoming budget, Corbett said the state must contribute $1.6 billion toward state pension funding, an amount that will rise to $2.3 billion in FY14 and $4.3 billion in FY17.

“If the budget’s still $27 billion … that’s going to take a big portion out of this pie. And who is it going to affect? When you don’t have much money, you go to those who have the biggest portion of the pie. It will be welfare, it will be education,” the governor said.

Corbett said he would like to see the state’s financial situation improve to the point where the education cuts could be eliminated or reversed. “You want money for higher education. I certainly agree. I think we should have that,” the governor said, adding that costs must be controlled. “I’m controlling costs in state government. We’re trying as much as we possibly can. We’re looking to the universities also to control their costs.”

Corbett said he recognized that his budget proposal to cut appropriations for Pitt, Penn State and Temple 30 percent is a recommendation that will be modified by the legislature as the new budget is finalized. “We make recommendations and they are going to do something about that. We understand that,” he said.

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly President Nyasha Hungwe

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly President Nyasha Hungwe

Brain drain

Corbett also addressed a question on a potential brain drain that could impact the state’s industrial economy as a result of funding cuts in higher education.

“I already worry about brain drain,” he said, noting that Pennsylvania schools graduate 12,000 teachers a year, yet there are job openings for only 3,000 teachers in the state. “I will tell you: Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina are the recipients of that brain drain,” he said.

“We will reverse the brain drain if we keep the economy going and growing,” Corbett said, noting that regardless of negative opinions toward the petrochemical and oil and gas industries, “We have more of those engineers moving back from Houston now in the last three years because of that,” essentially reversing the brain drain that resulted from the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s.


In reply to a question on his commitment to investing in transit infrastructure and public transportation, the governor said his administration was meeting with Allegheny County and Port Authority leaders. “This again takes us back to the issue of how we have spent our money over the decade,” he said. Corbett noted that pension funding obligations are a significant portion of the Port Authority’s budget, and added that the Philadelphia area’s transit system is run more efficiently and less expensively.

Corbett said the Port Authority is seeking at least $60 million for the coming budget year. “Where do I take that from? Maybe higher ed, maybe welfare, maybe police protection?” he asked.

“We need them to get control of their spending, which is not easy because they have a pretty generous compensation package for their workers,” Corbett said.

“We’re going to need to see movement by the county and movement by the transit union that they are getting their fiscal house in order before we’re going to say we’re going to find some money somewhere to put in there.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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