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February 21, 2002

Budget year brings some "interesting dynamics"

G. Reynolds Clark, executive director of Pitt's community and governmental relations office, cited what he called "some interesting dynamics" in this year's budget process:

* Mark Schweiker is a one-year, one-term governor who's not running for re-election and therefore can take a harder line in defending his budget recommendations. On the other hand, legislators know Schweiker won't be in office next year to retaliate for attacks on his proposals.

* Because the state economy has been strong in recent years, many junior members of the General Assembly have no experience in hammering out a balanced budget with decreased state revenues, as they will be forced to do this year.

* A number of key legislators have announced that they won't seek re-election, including House appropriations committee chairperson John Barley. "Some of these legislators are going to be voting on a budget for the last time," Clark noted. "Whether that's good or bad, I don't know, but we have to be aware of that dynamic."

Approving a budget for the governor's consideration requires a simple majority vote of both the House and Senate. The Republicans control both houses as well as the governor's office, but Clark said: "That doesn't mean they're all in accord.

"I think there's some disagreement among members of the General Assembly and the governor's office and other cabinet officers as to where some of these state monies should and should not be allocated."

One funding source that's of great interest to Pitt is the $425 million in tobacco settlement money that Pennsylvania is scheduled to receive annually for 20 years. Some revenue-hungry legislators also are eyeing those funds, Clark warned.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, to his credit, insisted that Pennsylvania's tobacco settlement monies should go toward their intended purpose of funding health-related programs, Clark said — a policy that has benefited Pitt medical research. But last year's legislative act authorizing such spending will expire on June 30. Legislators must reconsider this year how Pennsylvania should spend its tobacco settlement windfall.

As General Assembly members were in the closing stages of approving last year's Pitt appropriation, they inserted a rider stipulating that no state funds could go to the University's Environmental Law Clinic. As a result, the Pitt administration began billing the clinic for its full overhead costs, a controversial move that clinic director Thomas Buchele said threatens to bankrupt the clinic.

Buchele, law Dean David Herring and other law faculty are working on a plan to spin off the clinic as an independent operation.

Clark said, "I think the majority of folks in the legislature didn't think it was a big issue, putting in that rider." They did so, Clark said, as a show of support for a few legislators, led by Sen. Joseph Scarnati, D-Warren, who were angered that the Environmental Law Clinic was representing opponents of logging in the Allegheny National Forest.

"Is there a possibility that other riders could be attached this year? Yeah, that's a possibility," Clark said. "It's something that we have to work very hard to not have done. But I feel very confident that the University would never compromise academic freedoms or the principles that this University was founded on and operates on."

Clark said he attended meetings between legislators and Pitt officials, during which Chancellor Mark Nordenberg defended the law clinic and its faculty.

"Legislators were saying, 'Fire those guys,'" Clark said. "The chancellor took a very strong position that those law professors would not be fired or pressured to change the clinic's caseload."

— Bruce Steele

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