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June 23, 2016

State appropriation: 2 bills await action

Will the University see an increase in its state appropriation for the coming fiscal year? And will Pitt’s fiscal year 2017 funding, whatever the amount, begin flowing on time?

With just a week to go before the state budget deadline, funding bills for the University await action in the state appropriations committees. Senate Bill 1252, introduced by Senate Democrats, aligns with Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to increase Pitt’s state support by 5 percent, to a proposed $150.35 million. (See Feb. 18 University Times.) Republican bills in the House and Senate (HB2138 and SB1294) propose holding the University’s state appropriation flat at $143.19 million.

Given that those bills are introduced largely to get the procedural ball rolling toward an appropriation, it’s difficult to infer too much from the dollar amounts, which may be amended, said Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations. This year, “there’s no sense or expectation that there would be any kind of cut,” he said. “But you never know.”

As an institution that’s not entirely under the state’s control, Pitt’s state funding comes via a nonpreferred appropriation, allocated in a separate bill following the enactment of the state’s general fund budget. Pitt’s appropriation covers about 7 percent of its $2.07 billion budget.

Although a state budget is due by the July 1 start of the fiscal year, Pitt waited until April to see its FY16 state funding begin flowing in the aftermath of a budget impasse between the Republican-majority General Assembly and Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf. After vetoing a pair of GOP budget proposals, Wolf allowed the state budget to take effect without his signature on March 28, ending a nine-month-long standoff.

Both the House and Senate are scheduled to be in session daily through June 30. The upcoming national conventions and elections to fill half of 50 state Senate seats and all 203 state House seats may help avert a repeat of last year’s impasse, Supowitz said.

While there’s been talk of an uptick in cooperation in Harrisburg this year, “the same underlying issues are still there,” Supowitz said.

Republicans balked last year at proposed new taxes. And while Wolf’s $32.73 billion FY17 budget plan includes a proposal to expand the state sales tax and to raise the state income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent, he’s now saying the budget can be balanced without broad tax increases.

The governor, who wants $250 million for basic education and $34 million to address opioid abuse, said in a KDKA radio interview earlier this week: “I’m not asking for a sales tax increase or personal income tax increase. I think we can do all this — the balanced budget, the increase in education and heroin initiatives — without a broad-based tax increase.”

He expressed optimism about budget talks. “I think that we’re making some good progress. I think we’re very close.”

Smaller revenue sources could combine to help fill the projected $1.8 billion state deficit.

A liquor reform measure, passed earlier this month, will add an estimated $150 million in state revenue in the coming year, according to House estimates. Other revenues could be raised through expanded gaming or via proposed additional taxes on cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

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