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October 1, 2009

State budget talks drag on, delay Pitt funding

In spite of a Sept. 18 announcement by Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who said an agreement had been reached on a $27.95 billion budget, Pennsylvania remains without a signed budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Rendell on Monday said he wants to sign a budget by Sunday, but others doubt whether that is a reasonable timeframe.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9 Chester), said, “I think it is possible that all of the various bills …  could be done by Sunday but that is probably a best-case scenario,” noting that between six and 12 budget-related bills likely will need to make their way through the legislature.

“The intention is to remain in Harrisburg and work through until we complete the remaining items on the budget agreement and have them on the governor’s desk and the estimate is that will take at least through this weekend. We all agreed to work to resolve whatever remaining differences and open issues there are and to try and have the work done as quickly as possible,” he said.

Pileggi said the number of open issues is growing shorter, with casino table games the largest unresolved issue.

Pitt Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations Paul A. Supowitz agreed that Sunday might be an optimistic timeframe. “I’d be surprised if it happens that quickly,” he said.

Regardless of when the legislature passes a budget, University administrators cautioned that is not the final hurdle before Pitt can set its own budget, which is dependent on its state appropriation.

“Once the [state] budget is agreed to, it doesn’t address the issue of the University’s budget which follows. They’re really sequential actions,” Robert F. Pack, vice provost for academic planning and resources management and chancellor’s liaison to the University Senate budget policies committee, told BPC members Sept. 18. “Once the governor and the legislature agree on a number they can easily pass the preferred parts of the budget that only take a simple majority in both houses. But the University budget is non-preferred, which means it requires a two-thirds majority,” Pack said, adding that until the larger budget issue is resolved, approval of non-preferred appropriations can’t occur.

In response to questions from BPC members, University administrators provided an update on Pitt’s economic status at the Sept. 18 meeting.

The impact of the absence of state appropriation dollars won’t be felt for awhile, said Vice Chancellor for Budget and Controller Arthur G. Ramicone. “We built liquidity in addition to the tuition money coming in. We’d already built our cash balances for a variety of reasons, so we’re okay in that sense,” he said.

He added that state money from the capital budget, the majority of which is being used for the ongoing Benedum Hall renovation project, has not been impacted. “We’ve been billing them and they’ve been paying the bills. It’s been okay.”

Ramicone also noted that the University’s deadline for submitting its fiscal year 2011 appropriation request has been pushed to mid-November due to the lack of a state appropriation for the current fiscal year. Typically the state-related universities submit their budget requests to the state Department of Education in late September.

Asked about the impact on hiring, Pack said, “We’re telling units that if their budget can support it, they should submit hiring requests as they traditionally would,” cautioning that “the approval to make an offer is separate from the approval to search.”

Under the current understanding of the budget situation, “It would support the kind of approvals that units are submitting because they say they can fund them,” he said. “If the environment is different six months from now when it’s time to make an offer, it may be necessary to review it at that time.”

Pack noted that the unsettled economy has an upside with regard to hiring. “Not many places are hiring now. There are real opportunities to make some good appointments and we don’t want people not to be able to pursue those opportunities in a reasonable way.”

Although final numbers won’t be available until later in October, Pack said enrollment University-wide is very good, attributing the numbers in part to the University’s decision to freeze tuition on the regional campuses. “We did recruit a good class slightly over the target we wanted,” he said, adding that retention numbers also look good.

“That part of the financially uncertain environment, at least so far, seems to have broken in our favor,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 3

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