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October 24, 1996

State sending mixed signals on funding for higher education

Recipe for predicting how much money Pitt will get from the state next year: First, place one tea leaf in a cup of water…

"It's a very uncertain picture. We're trying to read tea leaves, to some extent," Pitt's director of Commonwealth Relations, Ann Dykstra, told the University Senate budget policies committee Oct. 18.

Predicting the amount of the University's annual state appropriation, and the formula by which Harrisburg will allocate those dollars, "is always an exercise in flying blind," Dykstra acknowledged. But under Gov. Tom Ridge, the process has been even more unpredictable than under previous administrations, she said. During his first two years in office, Ridge has sent mixed signals to higher education institutions, Dykstra noted.

In his first budget proposal, Ridge recommended level funding for the universities, with the only increases coming through the state's Tuition Challenge Grants Program. Pitt received $3.25 million in additional state money through the program, which rewarded state-funded universities for limiting their fall 1995 tuition increases to 4.5 percent.

Ridge originally recommended giving each university its base allocation in a lump sum, doing away with line item appropriations such as the ones for Pitt's School of Medicine and dental clinic, and letting the universities decide how to spend the money. But the idea received little support from the General Assembly, and the governor's office did not push for it.

Also in his first budget proposal, Ridge recommended a 17 percent increase in grants to students through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). That was a big increase over the average 10 percent annual PHEAA increases under Ridge's predecessor, Robert Casey.

"We read into that the message that Gov. Ridge was inclined to let additional dollars for higher education follow the students rather than giving that money to the universities directly," Dykstra said.

But in his second budget proposal, the one for the current fiscal year, Ridge recommended level funding for both PHEAA and the universities' base appropriations. And he did not mention the Tuition Challenge Grants Program. Ultimately, Ridge and the General Assembly approved a $1.3 million increase in Pitt's appropriation, bringing it to its current level of $150.065 million.

Pitt's Harrisburg lobbyists don't know whether Ridge or the General Assembly will propose reviving the tuition cap plan next year, Dykstra said. One positive development under the Ridge administration has been a growing tendency to take advantage of university expertise in state-funded development projects, Dykstra said. She cited the example of Pennsylvania's Link to Learn Project, a three-year, $121 million project to build a state-wide computer network for basic and higher education. Pitt and other state-funded research universities are slated to get $7 million for their services in developing the network.

"Universities and their expertise are clearly being looked to, to drive this effort. Increasingly, the state is seeking our input, taking advantage of our expertise, using us as resources and providing funds for these services," Dykstra said.

"Whether or not that will translate into dollars [in Pitt's state appropriation] remains to be seen." Next month's elections could further cloud the funding picture for next year, Dykstra said. In setting the first two budgets of his administration, Ridge, a Republican, benefited from Republican majorities in both the state House and Senate. But the Nov. 5 elections could end the party's control of the House (where the Republicans now hold a one-vote majority), although the GOP is expected to retain its majority in the Senate; that majority currently stands at eight votes. A split General Assembly could complicate the budget-making process, Dykstra said.

For at least the last decade, Pennsylvania has ranked among the bottom five states in per capita funding for higher education. "A growing number of legislators are saying that they find that appalling. The problem is, the state budget is expected to grow by less than 1 percent this year, so that doesn't provide for much flexibility," Dykstra said.

In late September, Pitt submitted a $163.431 million funding request to the state Department of Education for next year. That would be an 8.9 percent increase over the University's current appropriation.

In late January, Gov. Ridge will give his annual State of the Commonwealth speech. In it, the governor may hint at how much state money Pitt and its fellow state-funded universities can expect to receive next year, Dykstra said. But Ridge won't release specific proposals prior to his Feb. 4 budget address to the General Assembly, she stated. "Until then, those numbers are a very, very tightly controlled secret," Dykstra said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 5

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